Consortium Collaborators Use Technology to Transform Health and Care

December 4, 2013

Professors Holly Jimison and Misha Pavel came to Northeastern for a specific purpose: to launch the Consortium for Technology for Proactive Care. They’re leading an effort to develop technology that supports continuity of care outside a hospital setting and promotes long-term health through behavioral change.

The work of the two faculty members, who have been named professors of practice in both the College of Computer and Information Science (CCIS) and Bouvé College of Health Sciences, has overlapped before. Each held a faculty position at the Oregon Health & Science University, where Jimison was an associate professor of medical informatics and clinical epidemiology with a joint appointment in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, which Pavel had chaired from 2008 through 2010 and been a professor since 2001. He, too, had a joint appointment in Oregon, in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering.

“Our expertise in Oregon was centered on cognitive health for older adults aging in place. Most recently, we were working on a cognitive self-coaching project with older adults,” says Jimison, who will serve as director of the consortium at Northeastern.

Yet each professor brings distinct strengths to the new task of creating the consortium. For example, Jimison’s educational background is in mathematics and medical information sciences, while Pavel’s is in electrical engineering and experimental psychology.

Most recently a technology advisor for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Big Data Initiative for Monitoring Health Behaviors at Home and in the Environment, Jimison focuses on interventions that incorporate technology to improve people’s health and quality of life. Pavel’s research involves developing algorithms and computational models underlying health technologies. He previously directed the National Science Foundation’s Smart and Connected Health Program, a project co-sponsored by the NIH. There, Pavel worked on mathematical models to characterize behavioral change with sufficient precision to develop individualized health interventions.

“We clearly need new models of care. Technology can make it more scalable and affordable, and result in providing more appropriate care. That requires sophisticated algorithms to interpret and infer patient activities in a reliable, clinically useful way. We’re trying to provide a common technology infrastructure and test protocols. Our goal is to deliver just-in-time care outside the hospital through health innovations and support in daily life,” Jimison says.

Their first step is to form the consortium team consisting of academics in computer science, engineering, and health fields as well as health care providers, payors, and government representatives. Pavel says, “We’re trying to build an environment where researchers and organizations can collect and share data, share algorithms, and make predictions and assessments of clinically relevant trends that are difficult to detect with conventional methods.

They’re also creating what Jimison describes as a “living lab” of people who consent to test new technology in their homes. Sensors that unobtrusively monitor and collect streams of data will enable the researchers to measure activities and infer cognitive function and health. This will allow them to develop appropriate and economically feasible interventions that incorporate technology.

Adaptive computer games will provide additional data that can be hard to obtain through traditional cognitive testing. Current cognitive tests have a number of shortcomings that limit their ability to provide frequent assessments of cognitive state. Pavel explains, “If someone does poorly on a cognition test, you can’t determine whether they’re simply not motivated to do well or if they’re cognitively impaired. In games, you can simulate real-life situations that require simultaneous execution of multiple processes, including working memory, attentional control, motor control, and perception. Computer games with embedded model-based assessment algorithms allow us to estimate the contribution of different component processes independent of the highly variable game scores. I have great hopes for using games not only for inference, but also for the mitigation of cognitive decline.”

For Jimison, the consortium represents not only a necessary step in understanding health and advancing health care, but also a natural outcome of experiences early in her career. Before she became a professor and researcher, Jimison was a Hewlett Packard engineer who designed ventilators and other medical products and also worked with physicians. She recalls, “The whole time, I saw patients were craving information, and I realized this was the real need. I transformed my career to make patients and their family members central.”