SMS-based Ebola Screening Tools Are In the Works


Public health officials from Doctors Without Borders are building a next generation outreach tool that it hopes will help West African countries turn the tide as they battle to control a historic Ebola outbreak.

The project started this summer when public health officials began work on an Ebola outbreak map that could be updated by anyone with access to a smartphone. The team created an app that can be used by local health workers to report and track new Ebola cases, and communicate bed availability to other local clinics. The app also identifies villages that practice high risk cultural behaviors, such as unsafe burial customs, or a general unwillingness to report symptoms or seek medical care. The map has been a key tool for public health officials and care providers trying to balance patient needs across a network of short staffed clinics.

Now, researchers are looking at ways of extending the platform beyond its current smartphone-based app. In an effort to build tools to engage directly with locals, the platform will be retrofitted with a computer-controlled SMS engine that will work with traditional cell phones. The new platform will provide a majority of local West African’s with the ability to anonymously check their symptoms and get recommendations on local clinics where they can receive care.

Locals will send symptom questions to a toll free local number, which will be read and interpreted by a computer using natural language processing. The symptoms, along with the location of the texter which will be ascertained based on which cell tower processes the text, will be evaluated to determine whether the patient is a likely Ebola carrier. At that point, current bed utilization levels at local clinics will be checked, and details will be sent to the texter on where they should go to get tested and receive the care they need.

In a region where locals are culturally resistant to seeking medical help, improving access to care has been a problematic barrier that needs improving. “There have been numerous reports where probable Ebola-infected patients had to be driven away from health care facilities due to lack of bed availability,” says Mohamad Trad from Doctors Without Borders. Convincing patients to seek care in controlled clinical environments, rather than trying to fight through the disease on their own at home, has been seen as a key step in curbing the overall outbreak. There is no anticipated roll out date for the system, because funding is still being raised.

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