Harvard Medical School develops swine flu iPhone app

The school's publications group plans to build other mobile apps as well

Want to know if you’ve got the swine flu? There’s an app for that.

Harvard Medical School is selling an iPhone application for US$1.99 with a variety of information and services related to the flu.

The Swine Flu Center application, developed by a new group at Harvard called HMSMobile, includes an interactive section to help users determine if they have the flu and at what point they should call the doctor.

The application uses GPS to connect people to local hotlines they can call for information about the flu in their community.

News feeds include data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and video guides show how people can protect against the flu and if they get it, how to protect others.

For $4, businesses can buy a separate component loaded with information about how to prepare for managing an outbreak of the flu among employees including a list of global hotlines that business travelers can call.

Other swine flu apps are already available for the iPhone, although most offer a subset of the features the HMSMobile app delivers.

For instance, the African American History Channel has an application that includes information about swine flu symptoms as well as links to the Twitter feeds of the CDC and the World Health Organization. NoMind Software’s swine flu app includes maps plotting outbreaks.

While all of the content in the Swine Flue Center app, including the videos, was produced in-house at the Harvard Health Publications Division of Harvard Medical School, consultants at the Israeli Imagine Network actually built the application, said Anthony Komaroff, a practicing physician, editor-in-chief of Harvard Health Publications and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

His group at Harvard Health Publications decided a couple of months ago that the publications it had created around the swine flu would be ideal for delivery to people on their phones.

“We decided … that this was a problem that people would probably want instant information, bite-sized information, about, and that the mobile device platform was a good way of doing that,” he said.

The plan is to at least cover the cost of developing the swine flu application but the group would be happy to make some money as well, he said. “We have a lot of med students to put through school on scholarship and that’s where any money we do make goes,” he said.

Around the time that it decided to build the swine flu application, the publications division created a new group, HMSMobile, dedicated to building mobile health applications.

“We had been moving in the direction of creating health content for the mobile device platform but this was like a pregnant opportunity to get familiar with the medium and try to do something useful,” he said.

“There are relatively few health related apps for any mobile device… so we are learning as we go,” he said.

While the group hasn’t yet started on another application, Komaroff envisions a healthy lifestyles application that can help users find answers about common symptoms. Imagine you are in a taxi heading to the airport for a flight to Europe and your back hurts, he said.

“You might be asking yourself, ‘Could this be serious? Should I be getting on this plane? If I do get on this plane and it turns out to be serious who are the doctors and hospitals near where I’ll be?’”

He envisions an application that would let a mobile user send questions and receive automated information about such a predicament.

For now, HMSMobile plans to wait and see the reaction to the swine flu application. It does not have any immediate plans to develop a similar app for other platforms.

“We think we need to get familiar with the medium around concrete topics like the swine flu before making detailed commitments on what to do next. But we have a definite commitment to doing more,” he said.

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