Singapore's first disease map delivers real-time information on infectious diseases

Dr Low Lee Yong, founder of Make Health Connect (MHC), with a projection of the live disease map showing hotspots of illnesses doctors dealt with.
Dr Low Lee Yong, founder of Make Health Connect (MHC), with a projection of the live disease map showing hotspots of illnesses doctors dealt with.ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA

Website gives real-time updates from inputs by doctors in network of 1,200 clinics in S'pore

Many people were red-eyed in Tampines over the past fortnight. Doctors saw many more cases of conjunctivitis there than in other parts of Singapore.

Last week, Pasir Ris and Clementi appeared to be hot spots for chicken pox, while over in Marine Parade, more children were seeing the doctor for hand, foot and mouth disease.

That picture emerged on Singapore's first disease map that delivers real-time information on infectious diseases patients are seeing doctors for. Released online by Make Health Connect (MHC), a home- grown network of 1,200 clinics, the live map offers a clear picture of viral and bacterial afflictions - from dengue fever to chicken pox to upper respiratory infections.

It is based on diagnoses submitted online by doctors in the network, and refreshes itself hourly.

The map uses an array of colours to show the incidence rate for a disease - blue denotes scattered occurrences, green a moderate number of cases, followed by yellow and red which indicate a high incidence rate.

There is nothing like it available here, although the National Environment Agency has a website which tracks dengue infections, and that is updated daily.

MHC founder Low Lee Yong said his network's map - which is available free on www.mhcasia. com/livemap/ - is unique because it displays the spread of different diseases diagnosed by medical professionals on the front line.

It reflects diagnoses made by doctors "who are like the sentinels in fighting diseases", he said.

Identifying a new hot spot for dengue fever, for example, is invaluable for the health authorities battling the dreaded Aedes mosquitoes which have claimed three lives this year and infected more than 14,000 people.

Dr Low expects human resource professionals to also find the map useful.

"If you're running a semiconductor factory in Jurong, the last thing you want is an outbreak of chickenpox or conjunctivitis because that can seriously affect operations and production schedules. The knowledge will allow HR people to make plans and implement preventive measures.

"The traditional method of surveillance to predict disease outbreaks involves collecting data from hospitals, clinics and laboratories which is rather labour-intensive and time consuming."

More recently, there have also been Web-based tools such as Google Flu Trends which attempts to predict outbreaks of illnesses by monitoring and analysing health-related inquiries on its search engines.

But unlike actual diagnoses by doctors, Dr Low said, online inquiries may be vague and may not accurately reflect the spread of different diseases which often have overlapping and non-specific symptoms.

Records of the MHC disease live map can also be used to study trends across different locations in Singapore.

For example, are people in Jurong more susceptible to upper respiratory tract infections than people in Katong because of their proximity to factories?

Veteran statistician Paul Cheung, who is professor of social policy and analytics at the National University of Singapore, described the map as a useful tool for epidemiology and analytics, and could be used to monitor real-time community health behaviour.

"This is an interesting tool because the information comes from 1,200 clinics, which are very well-structured community sensors. Each time a doctor makes and keys in a diagnosis, it becomes information. The information is not only captured but pumped out very quickly," he said.

Dr Low started MHC in 1994 to help small clinics band together and cut costs. Over the years, he developed a unique computerised database which can throw up insights into practices and trends on the ground, from unique afflictions affecting a company's workforce to the number of days of medical leave a company's staff take.

He came up with the idea of a disease live map a year ago, and took six months to develop it.

MHC turns 20 this year and is marking its anniversary with a dinner tomorrow at Marina Bay Sands.

It is pledging $200,000 to Goducate, an non-governmental organisation which helps to educate the needy in Asia, and $150,000 in medical bursaries to the National University of Singapore Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine.

kimhoh@sph.com.sg

The map can be viewed at www.mhcasia.com/livemap/