Open wide and say “Aah.” Not your mouth – your smartphone or laptop.
Mobile health applications are multiplying like cells in a petri dish. Consumers will soon have 600 million to choose from, analysts say. By 2015, more than a third of the nation’s 1.4 billion smart phone users will run some type of medical app.
At the UC Irvine division of the California Institute for Telecommunications & Information Technology, researchers, computer scientists, engineers, biologists, chemists and game developers in the new eHealth Collaboratory meld their expertise to produce these applications for healthcare consumers as well as providers.
Calit2 division director G.P. Li calls it a “high-touch” approach.
“High-touch goes beyond developing the next gadget,” he says. “We want to personalize the user experience. Our mission is not to create universal solutions but to lower the barriers to individual support.”
Applications for telemedicine, mobile operating systems, wireless interfaces, and even micro- and nanofluidic diagnostics are in the works. But prototypes are just a step on the road to the ultimate destination.
“We’re trying to figure out how to use technology to empower people to take care of their health,” says Collaboratory manager Mark Bachman, assistant professor of electrical engineering & computer science. Advances in telecommunication and the accessibility of inexpensive electronic devices, he notes, “open the door to a great opportunity.”
Multidisciplinary teamwork is paramount. “We have a chance to learn to build things that really work, but we’ve got to collaborate with people in the trenches who know exactly what consumers want,” Bachman says.
For example, two engineers, a neurologist and a computer gaming expert joined forces for “iMove,” a grant-supported initiative that seeks to improve human mobility. Principal investigator/engineering professor David Reinkensmeyer says, “We’re trying to understand the computational mechanisms of human motor learning.”
In another Collaboratory effort, pediatric anesthesiologist Dr. Zeev Kain has teamed with engineer Bachman and psychologist Michelle Fortier to develop an application for children undergoing cancer treatment.
“Pain Buddy,” funded by $450,000 from the Hoag Foundation, will prompt kids to report their pain level at regular intervals on a handheld electronic device – a kind of mobile pain diary. The data will be made available to the child’s oncology treatment team, which can respond with instructions and recommendations.
“The literature shows us that children age 8 and up can really use these devices to monitor their health information,” says Fortier, who plans a Spanish-language version and an adaptation for acute and recurrent pain.
Kain also has created WebTIPS, a personalized app that helps kids prepare for surgery and their parents manage postsurgical pain.
An additional interdisciplinary collaboration pairs computer scientist Walt Scacchi with medical professionals to produce online games and virtual-world applications targeting such chronic health issues as obesity, asthma and diabetes.
“These ailments are growing very fast, and there are not enough healthcare providers,” Scacchi says. “Low-cost gaming technology can reinforce positive behaviors, and social networks can connect people with similar problems. Some find helping themselves and each other less intimidating than a face-to-face encounter with a doctor or nurse in a medical setting.”
Online platforms can offer individualized relief from other conditions as well. Dr. Hamid Djalilian, a UC Irvine Medical Center otolaryngologist, created a relatively inexpensive, Web-based rehab strategy for tinnitus – a ringing, humming or buzzing in the ears that affects about 30 million Americans.
A masking pitch close to the sound of the ringing will help a majority of patients, Djalilian says, so Beyondtinnitus.com prompts users to identify their tinnitus pitch and loudness, then delivers a customized sound file for download onto an iPod or other device.
The Collaboratory’s healthcare solutions address a wide range of medical concerns but share the same “high-touch” approach.
“Everybody is doing e-health right now, but they’re all doing the same things,” Bachman says. “They all want to strap things to you and take data from you. But we don’t want to turn people into laboratory animals. If we do that, we have completely failed.
“Our goal is to promote better health through empowerment, with dignity and respect.”