Population Health

March 2, 2021

Spotlight: Weichao Yuwen addresses caregivers’ needs through tech-enabled health solutions

Image of Weichao YuwenWeichao Yuwen, assistant professor of Nursing & Healthcare Leadership at University of Washington Tacoma, combines her passion for healthcare and family research into her ongoing work to promote technology-enabled health solutions for family caregivers.

While pursuing her undergraduate degree in nursing at Arizona State University, Yuwen became involved in research examining how culture impacts adolescent health.

In conjunction with her cultural experiences as an immigrant and Asian American woman, this work helped solidify her interest in family research.

“I could see the cultural conflict among ‘mainstream’ society and immigrant families and understood that having a health condition does not only impact that person, but also their entire family,” Yuwen said.

After graduating with honors from Arizona State University, Yuwen continued her education at the UW School of Nursing, earning her Ph.D. in nursing science.

“I have been interested in how families are impacted when someone has a health condition and then looking at how we can better support [them],” Yuwen said.

Through this work, she realized how family caregivers’ health could be adversely affected while caring for a chronically ill family member.

“What we found is that [caregivers] experience stress and burnout, [yet] they do not allocate any of their resources to themselves,” Yuwen said. “Whenever they have anything—either time, money, or other resources—they prioritize those [resources] for their loved ones.”

The pressures and stress inherent to caregiving duties place caregivers at risk of neglecting their own health and well-being. This may consequently harm both the caregiver and those depending on them for care.

“There’s profound research showing if caregivers don’t have good health … they are not able to provide good care to the ones who are relying on them,” Yuwen said.

Recognizing the severity of this healthcare challenge, Yuwen was eager to address caregivers’ unmet health needs in a way that would be accessible and remotely available.

“About four years ago, I was at a health informatics conference where people talked about chatbots,” Yuwen said. “I immediately thought this would be perfect for all family caregivers.”

After identifying a mechanism that could address caregivers’ healthcare needs, Yuwen and an interdisciplinary team of students and faculty worked to create artificial intelligence “chatbot” technology that would be directed at caregivers of children with chronic health conditions.

Yuwen’s team included Dong Si, assistant professor in the Division of Computing & Software Systems at UW Bothell’s School of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM); Sunny Chieh Cheng, assistant professor of Nursing and Healthcare Leadership at UW Tacoma; Teresa Ward, professor and chair of the department of child, family, and population health nursing at the UW School of Nursing; and Will Kearns, Ph.D. candidate in the UW Department of Biomedical Informatics and Medical Education.Image of the COCO interface

Their project, COCO (Caring for Caregivers Online), would create a chatbot that utilizes artificial intelligence to detect caregivers’ feelings and propose self-help solutions or direct caregivers to appropriate healthcare resources.

The team was awarded a Population Health Initiative pilot research grant in March 2019 to conduct an initial pilot research study on the acceptability of this proposed solution.

The results of this study confirmed the utility and feasibility of COCO, inspiring Yuwen and her colleagues to further develop COCO for real-world applications.

To help the researchers with actualizing their technology-based healthcare solution, CoMotion awarded the researchers with an Innovation Gap Fund award in 2020.

“It’s a very challenging thing to bring our ideas to the traditional business world,” Yuwen said. “The biggest challenge for us, after testing that this program could help people, was scaling up to bring [COCO] to family caregivers. CoMotion has given us this tool to explore commercialization and allowed us to scale up.”

As Yuwen and her team continue to develop COCO, their work includes developing different versions of the chatbot to increase access to healthcare solutions for historically marginalized populations of caregivers in low-income and low-resourced communities.

This work is informed through an ongoing collaboration with Magaly Ramirez, assistant professor of health services at the UW School of Public Health, and community partners Puget Sound Asthma Coalition and Mujeres Latinas Apoyando La Comunidad.

“We’re taking various perspectives into account and working actively with stakeholders to develop additional versions of COCO,” Yuwen said.

Further, the researchers’ work has coincided with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, creating a unique opportunity to apply COCO in a local setting.

Yuwen and her team have recently combined forces with UW Human Resources to develop a version of their application specifically for UW family caregivers. The software will be launched in spring 2021, tailored with UW-specific resources.

“The UW has provided this opportunity to convene a group of very talented faculty and students together and build something that is for the social good,” Yuwen said. “The UW has provided support on both the research side … and also with commercialization, which is helping us to scale up and make COCO accessible for families.”

For more information about the COCO project, visit: https://coco.health.