NEW DELHI: Amid the Centre’s increasing emphasis on using the Aarogya Setu app as a tool to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, a systematic review of the mobile applications for COVID-19 response published in the flagship journal of the Indian Council of Medical Research has cautioned against stressing on standalone apps as the primary strategy for Covid-19 surveillance.
The paper published in the latest issue of the ICMR’s Indian Journal of Medical Research suggests that to maximize the impact of the app-based approaches they would need to be tightly coupled with health systems responses.
The study by the researchers associated with the George Institute of Global Health in the capital, while highlighting the current emphasis on the development of self-testing, quarantine monitoring, and contact tracing apps said that the “governments must ensure the necessary but least intrusive measures for disease surveillance.” All the mobile apps that were shortlisted for detailed review, were mapped against the WHO Digital Health Guidelines framework for its health systems relevance.
“While there is a huge emphasis on the use of these apps as self-protection tools there is little scientific evidence that these apps alone, without robust public health response linkages are likely to be beneficial,” said Dr Oommen John, a public health researcher and co-author of the study.
“The trace together app from Singapore was built as a tool to augment public health measures such as in person contact tracing,” he also said adding that if India amplifies the app component alone without other robust public health measures it can give a 'false sense of security'.
Contact tracing apps have been a crucial component of Covid-19 response in countries such as China, South Korea, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and Israel.
However, owing to the collection of users’ identifiers and data related to location and Bluetooth interactions, privacy experts have raised concerns over the use of these apps.
In India, Centre launched Aarogya Setu mobile app—and made it mandatory in several cases-- for the containment of the infection, through contact tracing and information dissemination.
Various State governments and healthcare organizations have also developed apps for lockdown enforcement, generating awareness, and monitoring of quarantined individuals in the country.
The researchers, who studied 50 such apps in India found that dissemination of untargeted Covid-19 related information on preventative strategies was the function of 27 (54%) apps.
“All the mobile apps that were shortlisted for detailed review, were mapped against the WHO Digital Health Guidelines framework for its health systems relevance” said Abhinav Bassi, the lead author of the study.
Nineteen (38%) apps were developed to monitor the movements of quarantined individuals, on-demand information services through chatbots or telephonic helplines were available only in 19 (38%) apps. Fifteen apps (30%) provided users with a self-risk assessment function based on a set of screening questions related to their symptoms, occupations, travel history, and contact history.
Information on the availability of Covid-19 testing facilities was available in six (12%) apps and only four (8%) apps had a provision for booking teleconsultation or testing appointments. It would be ideal when digital health tools such as mobile apps take into consideration a comprehensive health system response approach for maximizing the benefits.
The paper also noted that 70% of the population should have the app installed for the digital contact tracing efforts to be effective.