Projects use technology to assist people with rare medical conditions

Jessica Hallman
May 14, 2020
CTRL app prototype

A student-designed prototype of an app to help individuals with vaping addictions break the habit. This prototype was designed as a mobile health solution for an underrepresented health condition as part of a spring 2020 class in the College of Information Sciences and Technology.

IMAGE: Provided

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has illustrated the need for empathetic, creative and technically-skilled problem solvers to address health care challenges around the globe.

But that need isn’t limited to a global pandemic. There are many health conditions that individuals experience — especially those that are rare or underrepresented — which could benefit from new technologies. And issues that individuals with those conditions face are what students in a recent College of Information Sciences and Technology class studying health information technology focused on solving through technology this spring.

“A core part of designing health technology is really understanding the user and their specific health challenges,” said Alison Murphy, assistant teaching professor and instructor for the class. “For instance, what are the daily frustrations for someone addicted to vaping and trying to quit? How does it feel to be diagnosed with ALS knowing you will lose your ability to speak and move?”

She added, “By asking students to focus on designing mobile health (mHealth) solutions for rare or underrepresented conditions, it takes them outside their own daily life and makes them empathize with someone who was different than them, someone who has daily challenges that the students have never faced before.”

One condition that a team of students explored was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), otherwise known as Lou Gehrig's disease. The students’ proposed solution included potential use of voice recognition commands to help an individual perform daily tasks. Then, in the event of speech impairment, the mHealth app could use brain-computer interaction commands to allow the individual to continue daily activities and engage with loved ones.

“Underrepresented health conditions do not get much publicity or grants for research; however, there are still many people out there suffering on a daily basis,” said Kobi Galvis, a member of the ALS project team. “[This class] helped open my mind to helping people that were not covered by the mainstream media. It is important to consider everyone when trying to make a difference.”

COVID-19 is another health issue explored by a student team. While the disease has the potential to impact a large percentage of the global population and there is a lot of information available about it, there is no proper IT solution provided for users to get information that is well organized and easy to use, according to Junwon Choi.

Choi’s team created two prototypes of a mobile application, called BYE-RUS. The first prototype highlights a temperature-tracking function of the mobile app using biometrics via wearable technology, like an Apple Watch or Fitbit. The second prototype featured an alert function using artificial intelligence and leading data.

“With the advanced technology we have, and with abundant data online, we should utilize the technology as fully as we can to explore the tech solutions for underrepresented health conditions,” said Choi. “By applying a proper and well-devised tech solution, users will be able to increase the quality of their lives.”

Another team looked into vaping addition in the student body at Penn State.

“We have friends and peers that have tried to quit vaping but were unsuccessful,” said team member Hanna Willacy. “We wanted to create a program that would be able to encourage and help users on their journey to quit vaping.”

Her team created an app that enables individuals trying to quit vaping analyze, regulate and taper their vaping. The students added Bluetooth capabilities to allow users to import data from wearable technologies and created a high-fidelity prototype to demonstrate how the app would function for users.

“I really enjoyed exploring various tech solutions for underrepresented health conditions, because before this class I thought that health apps were mostly for tracking workouts and meals,” said Willacy. “This project made me realize that technology can be used to help people in need; we just need to think outside the box.”

According to Murphy, that “out-of-the-box” thinking was her ultimate objective for the class.

Murphy, who has allowed students in previous semesters to choose any health condition on which to focus their study, found that they selected conditions they were familiar with or that were relevant to them.

“By eliminating that option and asking students to focus on designing for someone else, students strengthened their empathy, created more innovative solutions, and learned more about both health care and technology design, which is the ultimate goal of the class,” she said.

She concluded, “An important part of the Information Sciences and Technology major is teaching students how to apply their technical skills to solve real problems within a specific context. The main takeaways of this class are a more in-depth knowledge of the health care domain, and the specific use and design of technology for patients, caregivers, doctors and a variety of health organizations.”

This story is informational in nature and should not be considered an endorsement of any product or application.

Last Updated May 14, 2020