18 Dec Project to create tech-based healthcare tools
Madison, Wis. – The concept of genetic-based medicine holds the promise of identifying our predisposition to various diseases, but it’s not the only form of self advocacy being explored in the healthcare space.
Another, more readily available way to empower people to become better healthcare consumers might be made possible by cell phones and other mobile computing devices, and a member of the University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty has been chosen to direct it.
Patricia Flatley Brennan, a professor of nursing and industrial engineering, will direct “Project HealthDesign: Rethinking the Power and Potential of Personal Health Records,” a $4.1 million initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. As part of the initiative, nine multidisciplinary teams around the nation have been awarded 18-month, $300,000 grants to design and test applications that can run on common technology platforms.
For many people, managing their own health information seems to be an option, yet Flatley Brennan said it is becoming an essential skill. The skill has been broadened by robust tools developed by information technology professionals, and those tools make it possible for patients to track healthcare results, manage payments, and maintain contact with healthcare providers.
These tools also could be used to remind a patient to take medications or schedule appointments, or perhaps help people with asthma incorporate weather and air quality updates into their daily health decisions.
According to Flatley Brennan, Project HealthDesign should produce another generation of health IT tools that are more useful and easier to operate. For example, she said, “a cell phone equipped with the patient’s medication and allergy history could interact with an RFID (radio frequency identity)-enabled aspirin bottle, warning that the product may include substances that the patient is unable to tolerate.”
Flatley Brennan said building such tools requires two major changes in application development. First, she said patients must be involved early in the design process so that interdisciplinary teams understand the way health behavior fits into their daily lives. Secondly, the applications have to work together with existing information systems.
Special challenges await in the form of digital inclusion for economically disadvantaged patients who don’t have access to personal computers and laptops. Flatley Brennan said part of attacking the digital divide, which she characterized as an artificial barrier, is developing applications that run on multiple devices, including cell phones with Internet access or even Nintendo devices.
If a 2005 public opinion poll is any indication, security will be a concern for the entire population. The poll, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies of Alexandria, Va., found wide support – 72 percent of those surveyed – for a national electronic health information exchange that would allow a patient’s health information to be shared with authorized individuals over the Internet, but only if it can be done privately and securely. For more than three out of four Americans (79 percent), it is a priority to make sure their records are shared only if they grant permission.
Phases of design
The project will consist of two phases, one lasting six months and the other lasting one year. In the first and shorter phase, design teams will participate in a structured process to create user-centered applications that address health challenges faced by individuals and families. In the prototype phase, these applications will be tested in targeted populations. The project will seek the input of a diverse group of people, including those with sedentary lifestyles and those who live in nursing homes, an acknowledgement that some solutions may be used by caregivers who have patient permission.
Flatley Brennan said the nine interdisciplinary teams are scattered throughout the nation – from North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park to the University of Washington – and she does not expect Wisconsin residents to participate in the design process. However, UW-Madison resources and expertise, including the RFID Lab, will be accessible to the design teams, and the process will be an open one.
“We have required all of our grantees to place their designs in the public domain,” Flatley Brennan said, “so anything we’re going to fund will be accessible to the marketplace as quickly as possible.”
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