Australian scientists develop new app to record global cause of death

By @iamkarlatecson on
Emergency workers and doctors take notes by the dead bodies
Emergency workers and doctors take notes by the dead bodies in a basement of a Japanese Red Cross hospital full of people evacuated from the area hit by tsunami in Ishinomaki March 13, 2011. Japan faced a growing humanitarian crisis on Sunday after its devastating earthquake and tsunami left millions of people without water, electricity, homes or heat. Reuters/Damir Sagolj

Despite the age of big data, developing countries have yet to maximise technology to accurately determine the cause of death in their areas. As a result, health programmmes and funds tend to be misappropriated, and the real health issues are not addressed.

In a bid to resolve this, a group of Australian researchers have designed a new mobile application that can collect reliable death statistics and correctly record them on modern devices.

The app, detailed in the journal BMC Medicine, involves a short "verbal autopsy" questionnaire given to family members of the deceased in hand-held devices. Instead of a doctor, a computer analyses the data to provide a diagnosis.

According to the researchers, the process works as the computer links symptoms with a specific cause of death in real-time, making an instant diagnosis. In the traditional method, the team said that there’s a 10-year lag between the death and the doctor’s report. 

“Relying on doctors to collect information about causes of death in rural populations is not helpful,” said University of Melbourne Laureate Professor Alan Lopez, who led the study.

The method involves data collection by health workers, registrars and village officials who use the app to administer the surveys. Lopez, with his colleagues at the University of Melbourne, have collaborated with researchers at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington to develop the app.

The team has tested it in India, the Philippines, Mexico, and Tanzania. They also conducted field tests in China, Sri Lanka and Papua New Guinea.

“Up-to-date, reliable information on what people are dying from and at what age, is really important for policies to prevent premature death. Our app provides a way to do this, quickly, simply, cheaply and effectively, in real time, with the power of technology,” Lopez said. 

The app will enable governments to gather data to make more appropriate health policies in a shorter period of time and at a fraction of the cost. “Even if you’re sitting out in the remote bush in Africa and you can do this. Anywhere you’ve got power, it’s possible,” the team said.

In May 2015, Lopez and his team published a study that described the problems of accurate population data as well as proposed solutions. They revealed that as many as 40 million deaths go unrecorded each year, according to an article published in UPI.

The researchers hope that their study will help make population data become up to date and readily available through improvements in civil registration and the collection of vital statistics around the world.

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