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Technology to improve health care

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November 19, 2012




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.

Last Monday, the North­eastern com­mu­nity  got 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,l fea­tured 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."