Stories about: John Brownstein

Predicting influenza outbreaks faster with a digitally-empowered wearable device

Influenza viruses. Outbreaks can be predicted using digital health tools like Thermia.The Thermia online health educational tool, developed at Boston Children’s Hospital, has enabled one-month-faster prediction of seasonal influenza outbreaks in China, via its digital integration with a commercially-available wearable thermometer. The findings appear in a new study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

 “The fact that we were able to predict influenza outbreaks faster than China’s national surveillance programs really shows the capacity for everyday, wearable digital health devices to track the spread of disease at the population level,” says the study’s lead author Yulin Hswen, who is a research fellow in Boston Children’s Computational Epidemiology Group and a doctoral candidate at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.

China has 620 million mobile internet users who can theoretically access the standalone Thermia application from any computer, smartphone or even the Amazon Alexa assistant.

Although the Boston Children’s team has previously demonstrated that social media can be used to track disease, this is the first time they’ve shown that outbreaks can be predicted through an integrated wearable device and online tool.

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Plugging gaps in Zika surveillance with online news reports

Zika surveillance
Zika virus disease reports as of May 31, 2016 (click to enlarge)

As the Zika epidemic continues to unfold, most affected countries are flying blind: they have limited government disease surveillance systems in place to track new cases. That leaves public health officials unable to estimate how fast Zika is spreading, where the hotspots are and when the outbreak will peak — much less contain it and prepare for cases of microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome, both now presumed to be caused by the Zika virus.

“One of the things we really struggled with in the early days of Zika was a lack of official data sources,” says research fellow Maia Majumder, MPH, of the Computational Epidemiology Group at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Surveillance has been really lagging. When we don’t know how many cases there are day to day, week to week, it’s really hard to characterize how bad an outbreak is.”

A study this week led by Majumder suggests a readily available data source for estimating actual case counts on the ground: online local news reports, adjusted using data from Google search trends.

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Ten child health innovations headed to SXSWi

Impact Pediatric Health child health innovation
(U.S. Army/Lori Yerden via Flickr)

Innovation in pediatrics is alive and well. On March 14, at the South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) festival in Austin, Tex., Impact Pediatric Health will run its second annual pitch competition for digital health and medical device startups. Based on the ten child health innovations to be pitched, it promises to be as inspiring as last year’s event.

Judges include representatives from the four founding hospitals — Boston Children’s Hospital, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, Texas Children’s Hospital and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia — and from Sesame Workshop, whose recently announced Sesame Ventures plans to support companies that “help kids grow smarter, stronger and kinder.”

John Brownstein, PhD, chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s and one of the judges on the panel, agrees with that mission. “When it comes to innovation, pediatrics is often a second thought or gets left out altogether,” he says. “I’m extremely impressed with the landscape this year and the breadth of startup ideas.”

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Digital health, innovation and partnerships: A Q&A with Boston Children’s Chief Innovation Officer

Brownstein
Brownstein

During the last decade or so, health care has been rapidly transforming from a reactive, paper-based system to a responsive digital model.

Massachusetts, under Gov. Charlie Baker’s leadership, has launched a comprehensive public-private partnership to accelerate the state’s digital health care sector. The partnership has identified multiple ways to drive investment and growth in the state.

Technology transfer from universities to private companies is just one example. In the past, each transfer required completely new agreements. Three new standardized templates for licensing, technology transfer and sponsored research will help facilitate these processes. In 2016, the partnership will expand its Mentorship Speakers Series with a stronger focus on digital health care. Finally, the Digital Healthcare Innovation Hub and Accelerator will provide a space to support and grow new digital health companies in Boston.

Vector visited with John Brownstein, PhD, Boston Children’s Hospital’s Chief Innovation Officer, to better understand the background and potential impact of this new initiative.

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Mapping antibiotic resistance near you: ResistanceOpen

antibiotic resistance mapping ResistanceOpen

At the moment, it would appear the bacteria are winning. Antibiotic resistance is on the rise globally (in part because much of the public may not really understand how antibiotics work), threatening doctors’ ability to treat bacterial infections and potentially making surgery, chemotherapy and other medical procedures whose safety depends on antibiotic prophylaxis more risky.

Mapping antibiotic resistance — which bacteria are resistant to which drugs, and where — can help clinicians and public health officials decide how best to focus their control efforts. The challenge to date has been compiling resistance data in geographically useful ways.

“The data about antibiotic resistance are fragmented across laboratories and hospitals globally,” says Derek MacFadden, MD, a doctoral student at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who is working with the HealthMap team in Boston Children’s Computational Health Informatics Program. “Most of the data that are available are very high level, so you can’t get an understanding of regional-level antibiotic resistance.”

This is where ResistanceOpen could come in handy. This new tool, launched by HealthMap team this week during the World Health Organization’s World Antibiotic Awareness Week, provides a window into regional and local antibiotic resistance patterns across the globe.

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Are tweets a good measure of patient experience and health care quality?

Twitter speech bubblesWhen it comes to gauging quality, we often turn to Twitter, Yelp, Angie’s List and other networks for instant feedback on pretty much any company, contractor or store we do business with.

In contrast, hospitals often rely on tools like the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and System (HCAHPS) survey, which gives voice to patients and their concerns about the care they receive. But a new study published in the journal BMJ Quality & Safety suggests social media have something to add to that.

Notes_title_for_overlay“The main problems with measuring patient experience by survey are the small numbers of people who respond to surveys and the lag time,” says Jared Hawkins, MMSc, PhD, of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Computational Health Informatics Program (CHIP). “It can take up to two years before survey data are released to the public. Given that social media data are close to real time, we wanted to see if we could capture this discussion and if the content is useful.”

Hawkins, with Boston Children’s chief innovation officer, John Brownstein, PhD, and their colleagues collected more than 400,000 public tweets directed at the Twitter handles of nearly 2,400 U.S. hospitals between 2012 and 2013. Using machine learning, natural language processing and manual curation, they tagged 34,735 patient experience tweets directed at 1,726 hospital-owned Twitter accounts.

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The MERS death rate in Saudi Arabia is double that in South Korea. Why?

map South Korea Saudi Arabia MERS
(Wikimedia Commons)

The Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) virus outbreak in South Korea is essentially over. (Not so in Saudi Arabia, where the virus first emerged, though—authorities there have reported a major uptick in new MERS cases in recent days.) And while the country gets back on its feet, some interesting data are starting to come out, especially about the outbreak’s case fatality rate (CFR; the percent of patients infected with the virus who died from it).

John Brownstein, PhD, and Maimuna Majumder, MPH, from Boston Children’s HealthMap team just reported in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases that MERS’ CFR in South Korea (22 percent) is fully half that seen in Saudi Arabia (44 percent).

This infographic about Brownstein and Majumder’s MERS paper gives a snapshot of the data the analyzed, and what they think those data mean:

MERS virus South Korea Saudi Arabia infographic

Read Brownstein and Majumder’s analysis and check out Boston Children’s Hospital’s news release about the MERS paper.

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My work, my life: John Brownstein, PhD

Boston Children’s Hospital’s new chief innovation officer, John Brownstein, PhD, is an epidemiologist by training and a founding father of the growing field of digital epidemiology—the use of digital (especially social and mobile) data from a variety of sources to detect and track disease and promote health. As co-founder of HealthMap and director of the Computational Epidemiology Group in the hospital’s Computational Health Informatics Program, he infuses his work into many aspects of his life—along with a healthy helping of hot sauce.

Hover over the icons in the photo below to learn about the things in Brownstein’s phone, office and life that keep him going.

Brownstein will be one of four panelists discussing Patient Engagement in a Big Data World at Boston Children’s Global Pediatric Innovation Summit + Awards 2015. Learn more about the summit and register to attend.

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So, what’s your digital phenotype?

Ideally, we’re all supposed to see our doctor once a year for a checkup. It’s an opportunity to see how we’re doing from a health perspective, address any concerns or issues that we may have and catch any emerging issues before they become true problems.

But those visits are really only one-time, infrequent snapshots of health. They don’t give a full view of how we’re doing or feeling.

Now, think for a moment about how often you post something to Facebook or Twitter. Do you post anything about whether you’re feeling ill or down, or haven’t slept well? Ever share how far you ran, the route you biked or your number of steps for the day?

Every time you do, you’re creating a data point—another snapshot—about your health. Put those data points together, and what starts to emerge is a rich view of your health, much richer than one based on the records of your occasional medical visit.

As John Brownstein, PhD—director of the Computational Epidemiology Group (CEG) in Boston Children’s Hospital’s Computational Health Informatics Program and the hospital’s new Chief Innovation Officer—explains in this episode of the Harvard Medical School (HMS) Labcast (click the image above to hear it), this view has a name: your digital phenotype.

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Is that fever a problem? Ask Thermia

Thermia fever calculator HealthMap

Your child’s forehead is warm, and you just took her temperature. The next question is, what to do about it? We all know that an average normal temp is 98.6°F, but is 100° a problem? Should 102° be a concern?

This is where Thermia comes in. It’s an online fever calculator developed by the HealthMap team at Boston Children’s Hospital. Essentially, it’s an educational tool aimed at helping concerned parents interpret a child’s temperature and understand which steps they should consider taking.

“I’m a father of two, and I still wonder sometimes what a temperature actually means,” says HealthMap co-founder John Brownstein, PhD. “We realized that there really aren’t any fever calculators out there to help parents answer that question.

“Our idea with Thermia,” he adds, “was to arm families with information so they don’t panic when their child has a temperature.”

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