6 UW apps that put health care in your hands

UW faculty and students are developing smartphone apps to save lives and keep people healthy.

These health and safety apps were developed with support from donors to the Be Boundless — For Washington, For the World campaign.

Your phone rumbles on your desk, and you pick it up without even thinking. It’s yet another notification, but this one catches your attention — it’s a reminder to take your medication.

UW faculty and students have been tapping into the power of smartphones to keep us safe and healthy. The apps described below show how researchers are putting smartphones to work, from translating information on toxic pesticides to helping diagnose concussions.

With smartphones available to 81% of Americans, mobile apps like these can tackle everyday health problems (like ear infections) and global challenges (like air quality) with the same speed and ease.

These apps are a snapshot of the lifesaving innovations made possible with the support of private philanthropy and public funding.

AeroSpec

A healthy high school athlete suddenly falls ill, but doctors struggle to find the cause. Eventually, they nail an unlikely culprit: a fungus along her regular running route.

Real-time information about air pollutants and allergens could have replaced months of isolation and testing. That’s why Jiayang (Joe) He and Sep Makhsous, as UW engineering doctoral students, developed AeroSpec. By combining government air quality data with personalized readings from a small portable monitor, their app creates a custom map to show where the user is exposed to pollutants and allergens.

“The three things people are concerned with are mold, dust and pollution,” says Makhsous, now a postdoctoral fellow at CoMotion. “We want to give them a location where it’s happening, so they can take the appropriate action to stay healthy.”

With a $50,000 grant from the CoMotion Innovation Gap Fund, the team is turning a UW research project into a viable commercial product. They’ve conducted interviews with pulmonologists, pediatricians and people with airborne sensitivities, to understand the needs — and they’re ready to test the app widely in preparation for its release.

Available: January 2021

Real-time air quality analysis
  • AeroSpec nano air quality device,

    AeroSpec nano air quality device

  • AeroSpec screenshot,

    AeroSpec screenshot

Read about the AeroSpec team

Funded by: UW Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship, UW CoMotion Innovation Gap Fund and Director’s Award, UW Jones + Foster Accelerator Program, Boeing, Joint Center for Aerospace Technology Innovation, National Institutes of Health

Team:
Zoe Gregory, ’20
Jiayang (Joe) He, Doctoral Student, Department of Mechanical Engineering
Shirley Huang, Doctoral Student, Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences
Sep Makhsous, ’20, CoMotion Commercialization Fellow
Brenden Singh, Graduate Student, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Cheng-Ying (Eric) Wu, Graduate Student, Department of Mechanical Engineering


Rapid diagnosis for traumatic brain injuries

PupilScreen

From Little League practice fields to the battlefield, traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) are commonplace — but there’s no foolproof test to diagnose them when and where they occur.

PupilScreen aims to fill that gap. Developed by a team of UW doctors, computer scientists and engineers, the app converts any smartphone into a highly accurate pupilometer, detecting changes in the eye’s response to light, to assess the severity of an injury.

With PupilScreen, first responders, athletic trainers and even parents can get an objective assessment right away — helping them determine whether a trip to the hospital is necessary.

TBIs (including concussions) range from mild to severe. Many of the immediate diagnostic tools in use are subjective — even the penlight test typically used in emergency rooms — while pupilometers and CT scans are reserved for only the most serious injuries.

“Early diagnoses — knowing what you have — allows for effective, immediate triage,” says Lynn McGrath, a UW neurological surgery resident who helped create PupilScreen, which is now being tested as a prototype in clinical trials. “It also helps health professionals effectively allocate resources and provide efficient patient care.”

Available: In 12–18 months with FDA approval

  • PupilScreen app view,

    PupilScreen app view

  • Pupil screening,

    Pupil screening

Read about the PupilScreen team

Funded by: UW CoMotion Innovation Gap Fund, Amazon Catalyst, National Science Foundation, Washington Research Foundation

Team:
Randall Bly, Assistant Professor, Department of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery
Anthony Law, Laryngology Fellow, Department of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery
Lynn McGrath, Neurological Surgery Resident, UW Medicine
Robin Alfieri, CEO
Alex Mariakakis, Postdoctoral Researcher, Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering
Shwetak Patel, Washington Research Foundation Entrepreneurship Endowed Professor, Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering and Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering


The Bilingual Pesticide Safety Project

Although most Washington farmworkers are Spanish speakers, critical pesticide-safety information is primarily in English. Misapplied pesticides can make workers sick, cause environmental harm or result in financial losses for growers.

A pair of mobile apps from the Etiquetas bilingües de pesticidas/Bilingual Pesticide Safety Project are designed to mitigate those risks. Developed by the UW Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences, the apps provide a searchable database of the safety and handling information for pesticides commonly used in Washington state, with Spanish translations.

The Bilingual Pesticide Safety team extracts the label’s relevant details, translating and adding them to the databases. The apps work offline, so they can be used in the field without an internet connection, though neither replaces the official safety information.

“When people have the right information, they can do their job properly — and management has more confidence,” says Kit Galvin, a research scientist and principal investigator on the project. Farm managers who tested one of the apps said it helped them effectively explain the pesticide safety measures to their workers.

One of the apps — ¡Etiquetas de pesticidas, ahora!/Pesticide Labels, Now! — covers 40 pesticides often used in Washington’s apple and pear orchards. The other, PestiSeguro/PestiSafe, will include many pesticides and cover most WA specialty crops. It may expand beyond the state.

Available: ¡Etiquetas de pesticidas, ahora!/Pesticide Labels, Now! is available now from Apple and Google. PestiSeguro/PestiSafe will be available in 2021.

Safety information in Spanish and English for farmworkers
  • Farm worker,

    Farm worker

  • PestiSafe app view,

    PestiSafe app view

  • Farm worker,

    Farm worker

Read about the Bilingual Pesticide Safety Project team

Funded by: Washington Department of Labor & Industries (Safety and Health Investment Projects Grant Program), Washington Department of Agriculture (Specialty Crop Block Grant Program), UW CoMotion Innovation Gap Fund, UW Population Health Initiative, Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

Team:
Idanis Cruz, Research Coordinator
Sarah Fish, Graphic Designer
Dennis Galvin, Software Engineer and Mobile App Developer
Kit Galvin, Senior Research Scientist, Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences
Pablo Palmández, Translation Lead and Agricultural Research and Safety Specialist
Michael G. Yost, Professor, Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences


On-demand interventions for serious mental illness

FOCUS

Instead of alerting you about a new text message, what if your smartphone buzzed to remind you to take your medication — or to ask how you’re feeling?

FOCUS, an app created by the mHealth for Mental Health Program at UW Medicine, asks people with serious mental illness how they’re thinking, feeling and functioning throughout the day. Based on the responses, the app offers interventions and coping strategies, along with audio, video and written content the user can access anytime.

People with serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are typically treated at clinics — but not everyone can access care or feels comfortable in that setting. In one trial, FOCUS was shown to be just as effective as a clinic-based group-therapy session. Participants were highly satisfied with the app — and more likely to use it.

“When people were assigned to FOCUS, 90% of them [went] on to actually start treatment,” says Dror Ben-Zeev, a UW professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences who directs the mHealth (mobile health) program. Comparatively, less than 60% of those assigned to in-person group interventions made it to the clinic.

Now the app is being tested in 20 sites across Washington state to study how it can be integrated into clinical patient care.

Available: To be determined, but likely in partnership with providers or clinics

  • Focus app view,

    Focus app view

  • Focus app view,

    Focus app view

  • Focus app view,

    Focus app view

Read about the FOCUS team

Funded by: Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services, Department of Veterans Affairs, National Institute of Mental Health, Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute

Team: mHealth for Mental Health Program at UW Medicine, led by Professor Dror Ben-Zeev


EarHealth

It’s the middle of the night. Your toddler is fussy and keeps rubbing her ear. Bleary-eyed and half-awake, you struggle to figure out if your child needs a doctor’s visit and possibly medication.

A piece of paper and a smartphone app could help you decide.

EarHealth, designed by a team of UW computer scientists and ear, nose and throat doctors, checks for fluid behind the eardrum — a common symptom of ear infections.

The user cuts and folds a regular piece of paper into a small funnel, then attaches one end to the phone’s speaker with the other end next to the ear. The app sends a chirping sound through the ear canal and analyzes the echo to determine if fluid has built up behind the ear.

“The app only takes two seconds in each ear,” explains Randy Bly, an assistant professor of head and neck surgery at the UW School of Medicine. His team has found that children are willing to participate “because it’s on a smartphone and it’s interesting to them — the acoustic chirps sound somewhat like a bird.”

Diagnosing ear infections can be difficult, especially in children who have trouble describing their symptoms. The EarHealth app is easy to use and accurate. In a test at Seattle Children’s Hospital, the app’s algorithm correctly identified the presence of fluid 85% of the time.

Available: January 2021, pending FDA approval

At-home testing for ear infections
  • EarHealth app view,

    EarHealth app view

  • Reviewing EarHealth app results,

    Reviewing EarHealth app results

  • Using EarHealth for an ear infection test,

    Using EarHealth for an ear infection test

Read about the EarHealth team

Funded by: National Institutes of Health, Washington Research Foundation

Team:
Justin Chan, Doctoral Student, Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering
Randall Bly, Assistant Professor, Department of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery
Shyam Gollakota, Associate Professor, Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering
Sharat Raju, Otolaryngology Surgical Resident, UW Medicine
Arna Ionescu Stoll, Advisor


Detecting opioid overdoses to save lives

Second Chance

With an opioid overdose, the difference between life and death can come down to seconds.

Second Chance, a lifesaving app developed by UW anesthesiologists and computer scientists, can make the difference. The app monitors a person’s breathing rate and body movements to detect an overdose, and then connects the user with a friend or emergency services if they require immediate care.

Second Chance users activate the app before they inject drugs. The app sends inaudible sound waves from the smartphone to bounce off the user’s chest, scanning for specific breathing patterns based on how the sound is reflected back. Slowed or stopped breathing often signals an impending overdose.

The team designed and tested the app’s algorithm with real-world data from a supervised injection facility, where overdoses frequently occur. In tests, Second Chance has been effective about 90% of the time.

Available: Pending FDA approval through UW spinout Sound Life Sciences

  • Second Chance app view,

    Second Chance app view

  • Second Chance app view,

    Second Chance app view

Read about the Second Chance team

Funded by: UW Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute, National Science Foundation

Team:
Shyam Gollakota, Associate Professor, Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering
Rajalakshmi Nandakumar, ’19, Doctoral Student, Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering
Jacob Sunshine, Assistant Professor, Department of Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine


Originally published September 2020

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