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CS PhD Students Finalists for CIMIT Prize for Primary Healthcare with Mobile Health Tracking System

4/5/2010 10:00:00 AM

A team of Illinois computer science Ph.D. students has been selected as 1 of 10 finalists in the highly competitive 2010 CIMIT Prize for Primary Healthcare, and has been awarded $10,000 to develop a final proposal. A national competition open to graduate and undergraduate engineering students from accredited engineering programs, the CIMIT Prize for Primary Healthcare competition seeks ideas for technologic innovations with great potential to support and catalyze improved delivery of healthcare at the frontlines of medicine.

From left: Illinois CS PhD students Maurice Rabb, Yun Young Lee, and Nicholas Chen
From left: Illinois CS PhD students Maurice Rabb, Yun Young Lee, and Nicholas Chen

The team, Nicholas Chen, Yun Young Lee, and Maurice Rabb, are all conducting their Ph.D. research in software engineering with Professor Ralph Johnson. The group was inspired to enter the health care IT competition following a course in Healthcare Infrastructure CS 598HI, taught by computer science affiliate professor Bruce Schatz and Dr. Richard Berlin. The course focused on the ways in which a decentralized infrastructure for health care might have the same impacts on health delivery that evolved from innovations like the automobile and telephones – namely, empowering individuals to provide the inputs previously only provided by a centralized operator.  Schatz is the Head of the Department of Medical Information Science in the College of Medicine, who is using his office in Siebel Center to write the first book on Healthcare Infrastructure based on the course and interactions with computer science students.

CS598HI Instructors Dr. Richard Berlin of Carle Foundation Hospital and CS affiliate professor Bruce Schatz
CS598HI Instructors Dr. Richard Berlin of Carle Foundation Hospital and CS affiliate professor Bruce Schatz

“Prof. Schatz and Dr. Berlin really inspired us computer science students to apply the same sense of scalability to healthcare as we are accustomed to applying to IT,” remarked Rabb.

During the course, the group teamed together for the final course project. Inspired by the stereotypical life of a graduate student – one high in stress, and low on sleep, exercise, or healthy eating – the team set out to monitor their daily habits using mobile devices readily available.

The team created tracking methods for their sleep and exercise patterns, took weekly stress questionnaires, and took photographs of all of the food they ate during a 7 week period. The food photographs proved to be a novel way of tracking eating habits. The team took concepts from the Japanese Goshiki tradition extolling the virtues of eating 5 colors of food with every meal.

“At first the results were amusing,” said the team. “But, then we really could see a pattern between how we lived and how we felt.” And, it motivated them to change their own eating, sleeping, and exercising behaviors.

So the team turned their class project into a proposal for the CIMIT competition. The proposal focuses on broadening the data pool available to primary care providers by making it simple for health care consumers to monitor their health and wellness inputs each day.

Current primary healthcare suffers from the single feature, single point-of-failure syndrome, explains the team. Typically, our vital signs are measured only when we visit a primary care facility. Even when measured, they represent only a partial snapshot of our everyday health, failing to capture the continuous spectrum of our lives. Yet our general health is affected by our everyday lifestyle choices.

The team’s proposal aims to create the software tools and mobile monitoring infrastructure that will aid in both data collection and analysis of the monitoring data collected. The team’s approach uses readily-available, inexpensive devices to continuously instrument and integrate a breadth of lifestyle aspects.

“Our goal is to leverage existing technologies, so that any ordinary person can make use of what we’ve done to improve their health,” said Rabb.

Working with their proposed infrastructure hands-on for 7 weeks gave the group an excellent idea of what the daily issues and challenges are, and a better sense for how to create software to help people while being minimally intrusive in their daily lives.

In creating their proposal, the team worked closely with Schatz and Berlin on the healthcare infrastructure side, Johnson on the software engineering elements, and computer science Professor Karrie Karahalios, an expert in human computer interaction and mediated communication. They also had the benefit of the advice of Brant Chee, a PhD student in Library and Information Science, who had also taken the Healthcare Infrastructure course and was a CIMIT finalist the previous year. 

“Health care informatics as a field is emergent right now, and Illinois is at the forefront,” said Rob A. Rutenbar, head of the computer science department and the Abel Bliss Professor of Engineering.  “The collaborative environment at Illinois is leading to some very innovative ideas in terms of the future of health care delivery and health care informatics.”

The team and mentor Schatz have submitted a paper on their work to the American Medical Informatics Association, the major professional society in this discipline.

While refining their proposal for the final competition, the team is also creating additional tools to assist them in launching the project if they are selected as one of the 3 winners to have their projects funded for the grand prize of $150,000. Currently the team is working closely with staff at Bevier Café, the campus café run by the Food Science and Human Nutrition department as a course taught by Jill Craft North, to build a photographic database of foods to aid in their analysis of diet. By working directly with the Bevier staff, the team is making use of a real commercial kitchen, which is also a research laboratory run by Chef Jean-Louis Ledent, with full access to their food preparation, portions, recipes, and nutritional information. Their research is thus a good example of engineering students leveraging the campus to solve socially relevant problems.

“Ultimately, we want this system to help people feel good about themselves, to be fun, and to not induce guilt,” said the team. The data that the team’s infrastructure will collect and analyze a wealth of information that was once impractical to obtain. More importantly, the data will be accurate and continuous, so primary care providers can make more accurate and confident decisions about their patient’s care.

Beyond helping individual health care consumers from a wellness perspective, the team anticipates that their work will be easily scalable and deployable over a large population, towards both individual and epidemiological ends.