How Big Data is Helping Monitor STD Rates and Get People Tested

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It used to be that if you got a sexually transmitted disease or infection, you would be cast out of popular society and left to fend for yourself. In some cases, people died from what could have been easily treatable infections — no more serious than a chest cold. However, the stigma around contracting an STI or STD persisted well into the modern era, only recently being addressed now in the mid-2010s.

It’s only in the last decade or so that the conversations around STDs and STIs has become more open and informational. Now, many can be treated with a simple doctor’s visit and a course of antibiotics; however, many people still don’t know that because they’re too ashamed to tell the doctor about their sexual health. This stigma continues to complicate the means by which researchers can create better treatments for STDs and STIs.

One thing that’s crucial to the continued treatment of infections like these is tracking data around infection rates, geographical location, and patient demographics. This not only helps us understand how changes in communication will need to be made but also what populations need to be informed so that they can better understand their treatment. Managing big data like this and finding ways to implement it is where tech companies can step in to help with current STD rates and treatments.

Big Data Has a Big Role

“Big data” are sets of data so large you need a computer with specialized software to analyze patterns and trends. In healthcare, big data plays a crucial role in helping to understand patient populations and their healthcare needs. While trends have been tracked in healthcare for decades, it’s only with the introduction of health apps and wearable tech that the amount of data available has graduated to being considered “big data.”

While much of the potential applications for big data in healthcare is still only a possibility rather than a reality, it’s a possibility that could very much change the way people engage with their care. For example, you could provide your doctor with real-time streams of data about your health and fitness so that they have a several month snapshot of your health before your next appointment. There’s also the possibility that this type of data sharing could allow physicians to catch any risks before they manifest.

These type of data sets could also be huge in helping to track occurrences of regular health episodes, like those associated with outbreaks of flu or with an increase in STDs. Understanding how populations are experiencing certain health episodes can help distribute better resources and education around those issues. When it comes to STDs and STIs, information and education are crucial.

Part of alleviating the stigma around STDs and STIs is making sure that the demographics most likely to be affected have the understanding they need to seek care appropriately. If people understand that STIs are an infection like any other, and that without treatment they can cause major health issues down the road, then they’re more likely to get them treated. Big data can help to create the possibility of this level of understanding.

STD Testing Is a Global Issue

Getting people into the doctor’s office to test regularly for STDs is an issue faced by many countries across the globe. Because of its international reach, the issue of testing is different for each country. Depending on the cultural expectations and access to healthcare, it may be harder or easier to do these tests.

For example, in New Zealand, researchers conducted a study with college students to understand their barriers to getting tested. It turns out their barriers are similar to the ones in the United States in that they were concerned about being stigmatized, couldn’t afford to visit a doctor, or they simply underestimated their risk for STI contraction. However, in some countries, the barriers are entirely different.

For example, in China, the barriers to testing pertain to their infrastructure as well as their understanding of the transmission of STIs. Testing clinics are not so numerous, and education around using condoms for safe sex is not quite as ubiquitous as in other countries. Additionally, stigma is strong as a recent survey found that less than one-third of physicians who responded would administer an STD test if requested by the patient for fear of stigmatizing the clinic.

Big data can help tech companies across the entire world understand how to best implement change on a local level. There are burgeoning and established tech hubs in countries like India, Israel, and Japan that could greatly help to influence global attitudes around STD testing. By tapping into their local experiences, tech companies can bridge information gaps and spread awareness about best practices to promote sexual health.

Look to Google for Ideas

Tech companies frequently use their own big data sets of user data so that they can build the best product possible. This usually consists of demographic information, how they’re using the app or service, and what behaviors happen that either promote or prohibit user experience. These big data sets could be used to help improve access to STD testing and education.

For example, if you’ve ever searched for a product online and then noticed that same product come up in the ads on your social media feeds, then you know that the search engine you use is storing data about your online behavior. Search giant Google has recently begun to use their user data to help researchers monitor STD rates. They’ve allowed researchers access to search term data at a minimum of four academic institutions.

They’re allowing this because researchers believe if they can monitor search term in real time, then they will be better equipped to treat major outbreaks before they happen. If, for example, they notice a lot of people in their region are searching for “gonorrhea symptoms,” then they can allocate the resources needed to treat an increase in that outbreak. It also helps physicians to better understand what questions patients may have so they can address them in a stigma-free way that gives patients the answers they need to pursue the best path to health.

In all the ways technology and big data can make the world better, helping with healthcare is one of the best. By helping a population to be healthier, they are also helping it to have a greater understanding of how our bodies function and what actually causes problems. By increasing access to education and information, tech giants can help reduce the risk of long-term effects of STDs in many people worldwide as well as provide them with a greater understanding of the world around them.

About the Author

Avery Phillips is a freelance human based out of the beautiful Treasure Valley. She loves all things in nature, especially humans. Leave a comment down below or tweet her @a_taylorian with any questions or comments.


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