Uncertain efficacy for contact tracing apps as NHS releases theirs, says GlobalData

After months of setbacks, the NHS COVID-19 contact tracing app was recently released to the public in England and Wales. However, these types of app need to overcome significant hurdles to demonstrate their effectiveness. For example, current iterations cannot account for factors that reduce transmission risk such as wearing masks. False positives are also possible, as Bluetooth can penetrate thin walls while the virus cannot. It is possible that these apps will be a precursor to healthcare solutions in a future where smartphones and wearables will allow physicians to monitor the health status of their patients in real time. GlobalData currently expects the remote patient monitoring market to grow from $537.5m in 2019 to $645m in 2025 – but lessons learned from the deployment of these contact tracing apps may help the market grow faster.

Dominic Tong, Medical Devices Analyst at GlobalData, comments: “The COVID-19 pandemic has forced healthcare systems to shift towards a decentralized model of patient care. An important facilitator for this change will be the smartphone. As they become more advanced, they may be increasingly utilized as healthcare devices that can communicate patient status in real-time to physicians, including allowing telehealth consultations. They may also be used to better track disease spread from patient to patient, allowing governments to allocate resources where they are most needed. Recent COVID-19 contact tracing apps attempt to do this in hopes of containing the spread of the disease.”

At this time, there is not sufficient research to understand whether increased contact tracing of COVID-19 will result in increased testing. However, the main goal of contact tracing apps is to reduce tracing delay and increase tracing coverage without having to hire thousands of workers to scale up manual tracing efforts. Unfortunately, in a recent review published in The Lancet Digital Health, Braithwaite and colleagues found little evidence that currently available contact tracing apps are effective at reducing delay or increasing coverage. As an example, France’s StopCovid app was released on 2 June, and had only been downloaded 2.3 million times by mid-August (roughly 3% of the French population). Previous research has suggested that at least 56% of a population needs to be using a contact tracing app for it to be effective.

Tong continues: “Aside from problems with accuracy, further concerns regarding privacy and equity may have contributed to the low uptake. Consumers may be worried that the data collected could be used to track them, while experts fear that smartphone-based solutions may exclude vulnerable populations that need them the most.”

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