Latest flu-related tech is largely about the greater good, not you

Vaccines; crowdsourcing apps to report your symptoms; calling a doc instead of going to the hospital.... Individuals benefit, yes, but the masses even more so.

The Flu Near You app- and Web-based crowdsourcing project asks people to spend a few seconds a week reporting flulike symptoms, or the lack thereof, to help track trends. Screenshot by Elizabeth Armstrong Moore

We're in the height of the flu season and, as happens every year, lots of people are going to hospitals and some are not coming out alive. Some of the cases are high profile and news of them spreads like the flu itself -- the 23-year-old Bay Area man who chronicled his illness on Facebook before succumbing; the 29-year-old pregnant woman in Arkansas who lost her baby and is fighting for her life; the 10-month-old in Kentucky who went to sleep barely symptomatic and never woke up.

The stories underscore the reality that the flu can be lethal and should be taken seriously, even though only a small percentage of those who get it actually die from it. Similarly, flu-related tech is all about the numbers game; flu shots, data tracking projects like Google Flu Trends, and even call-a-doc telehealth services are as much about keeping those around us healthy as ourselves.

Take Flu Near You, the crowdsourced flu surveillance tool (both Web- and app-based) that asks users to anonymously report their flulike symptoms (or lack thereof) once a week. The project is blatantly altruistic in nature; people are donating their time (albeit only a few seconds a week) to help inform flu-related trends so that the general public has a better handle on the location and severity of outbreaks. The benefit a contributor gets is indirect at best -- a better understanding of the virus, outbreaks, vaccine efficacy by type, and so on may be useful down the road but isn't likely to help the user today.

"This appeals to the altruistic nature of people," says Mark Smolinski, a doctor who used to work at and is now the director of public health for Skoll Global Threats Fund, which overseas the endeavor. (In 2008, Smolinski was also named one of the top 15 smart people the next president should listen to by Wired.) "The bottom line is that people do not see the inherent value for them as an individual, but they do get that this could contribute to better public health."

Social media, too, plays a clear role in tracking data, spreading news, and generally raising awareness -- so much so that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has launched a competition encouraging the use of social media to predict flu outbreaks. (The registrant who best predicts the timing, peak, and intensity of this flu season using social-media data wins a whopping $75,000.)

Even telehealth services that cater to the convenience of patients who don't want to get out of bed to see a doc have the added benefit of helping to minimize the spread of infectious diseases. After all, the last place a person with flulike symptoms should go -- barring severe symptoms such as difficulty breathing -- is the emergency room, where they risk spreading the virus to the sickest among us. Staying at home is a service unto itself.

Alexander Cavaluzzo, a social-media manager and copywriter in New York City, wasn't about to brave the blizzard when he began experiencing the telltale symptoms of the flu last week. A friend had told him about American Well's real-time video consult service and, while the $49 out-of-pocket price tag felt a tad high, he figured it was better than spending the time and money to get to the doc.

"I figured for peace of mind and not having to travel and make an appointment and take off time from work to see my doc, it was, at the end of the day, worth it," he says. He was holed up in his room with a fever, scratchy throat, and aches, and his 10-minute video chat with a doctor -- which included a prescription in case he wanted help with his cough -- involved touching zero door knobs.

With flu fatalities on the rise across most of the US, people who get the seasonal flu shot, report their symptoms to projects like Flu Near You, use social media to spread awareness, and take advantage of telehealth services are, even if unwittingly, putting the health of the general public first.

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