Empowering patients: Intelligent devices and apps for better health

by Melinda Tang on April 2, 2012

Melinda Tang, MEng, is a software developer for the Innovation Acceleration Program at  Boston Children’s Hospital.

When children return home from the hospital after surgery, parents can be overwhelmed by the written information and instructions for follow-up. At the MIT Media Lab’s Health and Wellness Hackathon earlier this year, the focus was on empowering patients to take an active role in their health. As my colleague Brian Rosman described, our team from Boston Children’s Hospital attended and spent two weeks developing “Ralph,” a mobile application for managing post-operative care that incorporates an avatar and features of gaming to engage and motivate children to follow their regimen. I was one of the primary programmers for our group.

We won third place, working alongside five other talented teams. Here are some snapshots of what they were up to — helping patients manage asthma, diabetes, pain, cardiac rehab and more.

Asthma management: Chameleon

Nine million children in the United States suffer from asthma, making 18 million emergency room visits a year. First place at the hackathon went to Chameleon — a web-connected device and a mobile application that help children be in control of their asthma. Their combo inhaler spacer/spirometer device both delivers medication and tests lung function, wirelessly transmitting medication adherence and peak flow data back to the physician. The device is designed to look like a toy, putting children at ease, and the app incorporates elements of gaming to engage kids in taking their meds.

Diabetes management: GluBalloon

Winning second place, GluBalloon allows users with diabetes to track their diet and fitness activity against their insulin levels, helping them manage their disease. An intelligent insulin pen detects administered dosages, wirelessly transmitting the data to the application. The app integrates these data with fitness data (from Motorola’s MOTOACTV device) and dietary information from photos users take of what they’ve eaten. It then generates a visual display-a hot-air balloon that rises and falls, letting users monitor their health at a glance.

Cardiac rehab: Esoma

People with heart problems are urged to go through cardiac rehabilitation programs, but only a small percentage do so. This gaming interface, called Esoma, allows patients to participate in rehab from the comfort of their own homes, yet still under the guidance of a health care team. Using a Microsoft Kinect sensor (developed for the Xbox) to capture users’ movements-as they watch themselves via an on-screen avatar-this application turns standard monotonous exercises into a game. The app also incorporates physiological data, using a Bluetooth pulse oximeter, so patients always know that they’re exercising within safe limits.

Pain management

While pain accounts for an estimated 50 percent of primary care visits, pain is highly subjective and difficult to describe in a way that clinicians can interpret objectively. This team built a tool that helps user log their pain levels. An image map in the shape of the human body allows users to touch and track the locations of their pain and its intensity, sending this information to the application, along with data from a wearable sensor that detects skin changes indicating shifts in pain or stress. The app also alerts users when it’s time to take their medications, and integrates with a Bluetooth pillbox device that registers what pills were taken at what time.

Humanizing health goals: beWell

When clinicians give us health-related goals, such as exercising or taking our medications, it’s often hard to fit them in with the things that are really important to us, like being able to spend more time with family. The beWell app tries to bridge the gap between health goals and “life goals” — physical, emotional, social and occupational goals-and provides a personalized dashboard for tracking and visualizing progress toward each one. The app also incorporates social networking, so friends and supporters can track the user’s progress and send messages of encouragement.

It’s amazing what our team and others were able to accomplish in less than two weeks toward getting people more engaged in their own health. By building the right tools, we can help patients have successful outcomes.

What kind of health apps do you use? What features should a good app contain?


  • http://www.AboveStress.com/ Mike Zhang

    Thanks Melinda for posting this very informative piece!  Fascinating!  We have a Stress Tracker app - http://www.iTunes.com/apps/StressTracker which helps users monitor and manage their stress.  We also include relaxation exercises in the app.  I see the opportunity to learn and incorporate some very fun elements shown in your post to develop a kid-friendly version of the tracker.  btw, my wife is a pediatric oncologist at Children’s as well. 

    • Melinda Tang

      Very cool Mike! In this case, making your app  fun not only gets kids interested in using it as a tracker, but also acts as a form of stress relief in itself. It would definitely be interesting to see how this version of the app would look!

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