Siobhán O’Connor is going to TEDMED to spread the word about the Supporting LIFE app being developed through an Irish-led project.
Medicine and smartphones are obvious bedfellows. Apps can make it easier for clinicians to learn new skills, to pull up patient records, and even track the rise or fall of diseases simply by tapping the screen.
But plenty of work goes on behind the scenes, as Siobhán O’Connor knows. Next month, she will be in Washington, DC, to spread the word at the prestigious annual TEDMED conference about a new mobile health app called ‘Supporting Low-cost Intervention For disEase control (LIFE)’, which is being developed to support healthcare workers in remote and low-resource areas.
O’Connor, who is doing a joint PhD at the Department of Accounting, Finance and Information Systems in University College Cork, says she was “ecstatic” to be awarded a TEDMED Frontline Scholarship to attend the event and take part in activities there.
“TEDMED only issues a handful each year and the scholarship is open to people from all disciplines and backgrounds so it’s very competitive and I was delighted to receive one,” she says. “I have been watching TEDMED online for years so to get the opportunity to attend in person is really exciting.”
Supporting frontline medicine
In Washington, O’Connor will be highlighting the Supporting LIFE app, which is based on the Community Case Management Programme developed by the World Health Organisation. The existing programme helps frontline workers in low-resource settings to assess, diagnose or treat young children who present with illness, she explains, but an app could make it easier in practice.
“The current guidelines are paper-based, which is cumbersome and slow to use,” she says. “So by digitising them we want to make the process more efficient and effective, and lead to better health outcomes for children.”
As well as making the information more readily available, the team hopes to use the app in other ways too, notes O’Connor.
“Dr Tim O’Sullivan, the senior software engineer on the project, is currently developing a training platform that will be integrated into future versions of the Supporting LIFE app to educate and empower local healthcare workers in community case management,” she says.
“The app will also double up as a real-time disease-monitoring solution as the data it collects can be used to track a variety of childhood illnesses, such as malaria, pneumonia and infantile diarrhoea, to name a few.”
The idea for the app came from Dr Joe Gallagher, an Irish doctor who worked in the Billy Riordan Memorial Clinic, according to O’Connor.
“(Joe) saw the need for better training and resources for frontline healthcare staff working in rural clinics,” she explains.
“In Malawi, the doctor-patient ratio is about 1 to 88,000, so community healthcare workers take on a lot of responsibility in managing day-to-day healthcare. But their training is limited and they often work in isolated areas with a finite amount of equipment, drugs and other resources, so they face challenges every day in delivering good quality healthcare.”
Gallagher contacted UCC health informatics researcher Dr John O’Donoghue and the Supporting LIFE project came to life in a four-year FP7-funded project involving UCC, the University of Oxford, Lund University, Mzuzu University, Luke International Norway and Ungweru.
Last year, as part of the project, O’Connor and colleagues went to Malawi and held workshops with community healthcare workers.
“They gave us great feedback on how to improve the app to make it more practical for them to use in rural clinics,” she says.
A feasibility study is planned for next year in the Mzuzu district of Malawi and the ultimate goal is to carry out a randomised controlled trial in early 2016.
“This approach is the gold standard in clinical trials and will provide us with clear scientific evidence on whether the Supporting LIFE app improves health outcomes for sick children in Malawi,” says O’Connor. “It will also help us examine how community healthcare workers use the mobile device and how mhealth (mobile health) can be deployed in low-resource settings.”
Getting ahead at TEDMED
More immediately, O’Connor will be showcasing the app while at TEDMED.
“While the presentations on stage are amazing and insightful, a lot of the creative work goes on behind the scenes where innovators, researchers and industry get to network and make new contacts so I’m really looking forward to that,” she says.
“I will be able to promote the Supporting LIFE app at TEDMED on behalf of everyone in UCC and hopefully we might secure additional investor or philanthropic funding to continue our work in Malawi or make new research partnerships with institutions in the United States.”
Blending health and IT
The Kanturk, Co Cork, native, who studied business information systems and nursing at UCC and worked in telecommunications and the international financial services industry, is currently in the first year of a PhD in health informatics, which combines her interests in health and IT.
“My research interest lies in the blurring of boundaries between traditional healthcare systems and more open user-driven healthcare supported by mobile technology,” she says. “This is especially the case for healthcare professionals who get very conventional training but they can now use mobile devices to support and educate themselves in clinical practice and for continuing their professional development.”
As well as working on the Supporting LIFE project, O’Connor has been developing another smartphone app, which she worked on during a Health Research Board summer student scholarship in 2012.
The ‘iAmAStudentNurse’ app, which she expects to launch in 2015, aims to help nursing students in Ireland with information about anatomy, physiology and step-by-step instructions and references for important skills, such as blood pressure measurement, aseptic technique and wound care.
The variety she has experienced in her own career means she would encourage any students to consider working in STEM.
“(It) is a really exciting area to work in, it’s constantly evolving, which keeps your work interesting and it has great long-term career options that can take you all over the world,” she says. “You’ll never be bored working in STEM.”
Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.