Technology to improve health care

November 19, 2012

This semester, professors Matthew Goodwin, Rupal Patel, Stephen Intille, and Timothy Bickmore launched the nation’s first program devoted to Personal Health Informatics.

Per­sonal health tech­nolo­gies amount to more than just your smart­phone apps. A group of North­eastern researchers, who are leading a new doc­toral pro­gram at the uni­ver­sity, hope these tech­nolo­gies will save the health-care system.

The inno­v­a­tive Per­sonal Health Infor­matics program—the first of its kind in the nation—will pre­pare stu­dents from both the health and com­puter sci­ences fields to lead research and devel­op­ment of new tech­nolo­gies to trans­form health-care delivery around the globe.

“Sci­en­tific inno­va­tion in health care is a national imper­a­tive and one of Northeastern’s research pri­or­i­ties,” said Stephen W. Director, provost and senior vice pres­i­dent for aca­d­emic affairs. “A crit­ical piece of our efforts is devel­oping Ph.D. pro­grams that are anchored in mul­tiple dis­ci­plines and aligned with the needs of both industry and society.”

With a growing elderly pop­u­la­tion, surging obe­sity rates and younger diag­noses of con­di­tions like cancer, autism and HIV, people at all stages of life are flooding an already over­whelmed U.S. health-care system, according to Matthew Goodwin, pro­fessor of health sci­ences and com­puter and infor­ma­tion sci­ences. Unfor­tu­nately, he explained, that system is based on a sick-patient model with no way to reim­burse for wellness.

Along with Goodwin, the doc­toral pro­gram is being led by: Stephen Intille and Rupal Patel, both asso­ciate pro­fes­sors in the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences and Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ences; and Tim­othy Bick­more, asso­ciate pro­fessor in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sciences.

The team says health-care tech­nolo­gies, which have tra­di­tion­ally tar­geted clin­i­cians, have a great poten­tial to pre­vent ill­ness and pro­mote well­ness when placed in the hands of patients. And they believe these so-called “per­sonal health infor­matics,” could be the key to solving the health-care crisis.

On Monday, the North­eastern com­mu­nity can get an up-close look at some of the tech­nolo­gies from uni­ver­sity labs at Northeastern’s Open Lab Expe­ri­ence and Recep­tion. The event, spon­sored by the Office of the Provost, will run from 4–6 p.m. in the Raytheon Amphithe­ater in the Egan Research Center, and will fea­ture inter­ac­tive demos of tech­nolo­gies from North­eastern laboratories.

Cur­rent North­eastern stu­dent Stephen Fla­herty spent a half-decade in the imaging depart­ment at Boston’s Beth Israel Med­ical Dea­coness Center and had been searching for a doc­toral pro­gram for a number of years. “Nothing fit my inter­ests the way the PHI pro­gram does,” he said.

“Nearly all existing doc­toral pro­grams in health or med­ical infor­matics focus on the devel­op­ment and use of tech­nolo­gies used by physi­cians and other med­ical staff,” Intille said. “Most of the tech­nolo­gies are only used once people get sick.”

The tech­nolo­gies of PHI — which range from assis­tive tech­nolo­gies for chil­dren with autism to wellness-focused mobile apps — are “focused on helping patients take care of them­selves,” Bick­more said.

The pro­gram includes fac­ulty from six of the university’s nine col­leges and schools, whose exper­tise includes human-computer inter­ac­tions, data pro­cessing and mea­suring emo­tion, to name a few. These strengths, cou­pled with a com­mit­ment to training skilled health-care pro­fes­sionals, will enable the new program’s suc­cess, Patel said.

Northeastern’s com­mit­ment to trans­dis­ci­pli­nary teaching and research,” Intille said, “make it an ideal envi­ron­ment in which to con­duct research on the design and rig­orous field eval­u­a­tion of inno­v­a­tive per­sonal health tech­nolo­gies that may lead to dra­matic, pos­i­tive changes in how people receive and manage their care.”