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Q&A: How Kinsa is using its smart thermometers to track Covid-19 in real time

By Andrew Rebhan

April 10, 2020

    In response to the Covid-19 outbreak, most people are following stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of infection. However, one of the challenges to assessing nationwide health (apart from the lack of available testing kits) has been obtaining real-time access to data to determine whether social distancing measures have been effective.

    Your top resources for Covid-19 readiness

    Kinsa, a public health company headquartered in San Francisco, California, is looking to solve that problem. The company created the first FDA-approved smart thermometer to track fevers across the country. These thermometers, and accompanying mobile app, comprise a communication system to help consumers respond to illness, while simultaneously aggregating crowdsourced, de-identified data through the company's enterprise platform ("Kinsa Insights") to understand where and when illness is spreading.

    Currently, Kinsa devices are used by more than 1.5 million people in the country, and the thermometers have been collecting up to 162,000 daily temperature readings due to Covid-19. And the real-time illness data collected by the company not only matches with the CDC's, but it's often available weeks earlier with greater geo-precision. Moreover, individuals can use the mobile app to input additional symptoms, allowing the app to provide some basic health information and to determine if the user should seek additional care (e.g., telehealth visit, onsite clinics).

    I recently spoke with Nita Nehru, head of communications for Kinsa, to learn more about how the company has responded to the Covid-19 outbreak.

    Question: I suspect, given the data tracking your company performs every day, that you saw early signs of this pandemic. How did you adapt your products/service to handle Covid-19?

    Nita Nehru: Yes, our data gave us some early indications that enabled us to quickly launch our early warning system, U.S. Health Weather Map, on March 18. This web tool shows in real-time where there are unusual levels of fever— above and beyond what you'd expect from normal cold and flu. By comparing Kinsa's real-time illness signal to our forecasts of typical influenza levels for a county, we can identify areas where an outbreak is likely to occur.

    Think of it as a flashlight going off, illuminating a geographic area and saying, "send the test kits in, because something unusual is happening." This real-time information on where and when illness is starting, and where community spread is occurring, is vital in appropriately allocating limited supplies and manpower to the areas most in need of early intervention. It is possible to stem the spread of an epidemic or pandemic such as Covid-19 with this kind of immediate intervention. 

    Q: Having launched your U.S. health map tool, what are some initial trends you've seen?

    Nehru: The clusters of unusual fever that the map displays have been verified by top epidemic researchers to have an extremely strong correlation with Covid-19 outbreaks that are occurring approximately two to three weeks after we detect them.

    Our data also is showing that social distancing mandates are indeed breaking the chain of infection. We have countless data points that tell the same story across the country: Three to seven days after a stay-at-home or shelter-in-place order is enacted, fevers in these respective communities begin to drop, signaling a reduction in community spread of the virus. 

    Q: What has been the most challenging aspect of dealing with Covid-19? What lessons do you think we can learn from this experience that will help in future outbreaks? For example, how would our national response look if every household had the means to produce real-time, predictive data for population health management?

    Nehru: With worsening flu seasons and increasing threats of pandemics, an early warning system is essential infrastructure for the country. The four critical steps to stem the growth of an epidemic are: 

    1. An early warning system to understand where and when illness is spreading;

    2. Widespread testing capabilities;

    3. Treatment and isolation of those infected; and

    4. Antibody testing to determine the immunity level of a population.

    Kinsa is providing the early warning system our country needs to stop the next outbreak from becoming an epidemic. The more thermometers in use across the country, the more granular our early warning system can be, allowing us to direct critical resources to where they are needed.

    Q: Looking beyond real-time data, what other types of technology or tools do we need to avoid the next epidemic? In health care, there's a lot of emphasis right now on telehealth. What are the long-term implications for remote patient monitoring and other technologies here?

    Nehru: We need technologies and tools that allow us to shift from being reactive to proactive. Technologies that allow communication with the ill before they leave their home to visit a doctor have a tremendous role to play in the future. By communicating with individuals within hours of symptom onset, we can then direct them to the appropriate care—often without them having to leave the home—to get them better faster and stop the spread.

    Your top resources for Covid-19 readiness

    You're no doubt being inundated with a ton of information on how to prepare for patients with the 2019 coronavirus (Covid-19). To help you ensure the safety of your staff and patients, we pulled together the available resources on how to safely manage and prevent the spread of Covid-19.

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