Smartphones enlisted in the war against tuberculosis

Tuberculosis was a disease that Doc Holliday died from; in old-timey novels, it's often called consumption: a disease that sees those afflicted with it coughing delicately into hankies and later dying peacefully in bed. The truth is, the disease doesn't afford a peaceful death, nor is it a relic of centuries past.

In 2016, 1.6 million people died after contracting tuberculosis – a disease that causes the cells of an infected individual to burst. It can take hold of multiple sites in your body, but most often it affects the lungs. As the cells in an infected individual's lungs burst, the walls of the lungs destabilize, replacing the space where air's supposed to go. As the victim's lungs slowly collapse, the body believes itself to be drowning, because it is. As a result, the infected individual hacks and coughs, trying to clear the obstruction and, in the process, coughing up wee bits of flesh, blood and particles small enough to go airborne in a sneeze or cough. When someone else breathes those airborne particles in? They get infected.

It's scary shit, but it's also treatable shit.

To handle the symptoms that come with a case of tuberculosis, it's necessary to take medication on a daily basis. Doing so isn't just necessary for someone infected with tuberculosis to live a relatively normal life: given how infectious the disease is, it's also vital for keeping everyone around them safe from contracting the illness themselves. Because of this, those undergoing treatment for TB are closely monitored by healthcare professionals, to ensure that they're taking their pills as required. Patients are typically required to take their meds in the presence of a healthcare worker, to ensure that the dosage was actually ingested. This works well in a clinical situation, but not everyone lives near a clinic. Additionally, transient individuals may not be able to check into the same clinic on a daily basis, making treatment of their tuberculosis difficult.

Happily, researchers from Johns Hopkins and the University of California, San Diego have come up with the means to monitor patients as they take their daily doses, even when they're far from a clinical setting. As with so many other things, these days, it involves a smartphone. In this case, those being treated for TB are asked to take their medication in front of their smartphone camera, using an app called SureAdhere.

From Stat News:

"It gives patients a lot more autonomy," said Richard Garfein, founder of San-Diego-based SureAdhere and a pioneer in the use of mobile-phone technology to monitor TB patients. "It has made their lives a lot easier and illuminated some of the barriers they face."

Garfein's work to develop the monitoring product showcases both the potential of modern technology to improve treatment of serious diseases, as well as the challenge of tailoring even relatively simple digital solutions for use on sick patients. His team had to conduct studies of the tool's impact on medication adherence, train health workers and patients to use the technology, and carefully monitor patients to ensure they used it properly.

According to Stat News, the app may prove to be invaluable in the developing world, where the resources needed to treat and monitor tuberculosis patients are sparse, despite the fact that the infection rates of the disease are significantly higher than what we see in North America. It's an approach that the CDC and WHO are on board with. Both recently published guidebooks that push the use of video monitoring to ensure or at least improve the odds that individuals infected with virulent diseases will take their medication, as it was prescribed.

Image via Pxhere