Montreal based Epidemiologist, Dr Nitika Pant Pai, has developed an HIV self-testing eHealth app called HIVSmart that is attracting worldwide attention and is receiving financing from the likes of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Grand Challenges Canada, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the CIHR’s Canadian Trials Research Network.
The app, which works on Android devices and is being developed for iPhones, takes users through a series of self-tests for those who are concerned that they may have signs of testing positive for HIV or AIDS.
The app is an innovation that mixes cutting-edge science with the psychology of reaching out to those who are too afraid or shy to initiate testing – a strategy based on Dr Pant Pai’s years of experience in the field in India, Africa and North America. “You can download it onto your phone and it will walk you through the process of testing, help you understand why you might need a test. You can screen yourself and find out if you are at risk,” she explained.
Dr Pant Pai’s plan is to “reverse innovate” the app, so is therefore testing it first in Canada before extending it to the developing world.
Dr Pant Pai is developing the app with a small team, including a graphic designer and tech engineer, independent of major technology or medical companies. She sees her work more as a calling than a business, saying “social impact” is her concern, not revenue.
Using smartphone or mHealth technology for personal and public health needs is considered by many experts to be one of the most promising new areas for portable and wearable tech.
“Smartphone technology is even more valuable for people who ought to be diagnosed but are afraid,” said Dr Pant Pai. She referred to an article in the Oct. 18 edition of The Lancet medical journal which talks about how in Britain dating apps used primarily by gay men are working with health promotion agencies to also connect with clinics and treatment.
It’s a matter of capitalising on the worldwide social phenomenon of people preferring to interact with their phones instead of with another person. “People often think they are at risk but they don’t want to act on it,” said Dr Pant Pai. HIVSmart will store a user’s test information and offer links to the most appropriate clinic for post-testing treatment.
According to Dr Pant Pai the self-testing app is also faster than traditional testing. “People do want to show up for testing but it takes such a long time that the process puts them off,” said Dr Pant Pai.
Dr Pant Pai first became intrigued with the idea of self-testing for sexually transmitted diseases when she was working in rural India in the early 2000s and noticed how many people were getting overlooked because they simply weren’t getting tested.
Women, for example, would show up to clinics only when they were pregnant or about to give birth. She championed oral testing, which she says has been found to be 100% effective in diagnosing HIV and AIDs. This led to an online testing programme that was tried in South Africa.
“We started thinking about home testing in 2008,” said Dr Pant Pai. “It was a bold idea back then and smartphones hadn’t been invented yet. But now the world has caught up.”