Vancouver’s medical and tech sectors come together for innovative health apps
Ever wonder how it feels to experience the world as someone with autism? Well, there’s a game that can simulate exactly that.
Auti-Sim, a game currently available for free online, was created by a developer, designer, and early childhood educator in Vancouver. Set in a virtual playground, the game allows users to see and feel what childhood play is like for someone with the hypersensitive hearing that can result from autism.
It’s an example of the many innovative games, tools, and apps developed through collaborations between health-care and technology professionals in order to bring health services to the digital world.
Auti-Sim was just one of 28 projects designed and demonstrated during a weekend-long hackathon, Hacking Health, in February 2013. Even more projects will come to life next month when Hacking Health holds another Vancouver event on June 1 to 3.
Hacking Health brings together medical professionals, experts in technology and coding, designers, and patients to create apps that solve problems in the health-care industry.
“Everyone is passionate about seeing patients’ lives improved and seeing things get easier for clinicians,” said local organizer Rachel Barker.
At the event, anyone can pitch an idea that solves a problem related to health care. The remaining participants can then team up with pitches to spend the weekend designing and developing the app or online solution.
Some of the apps previously developed were based on ideas to empower patients by allowing them to access their personal medical records or help doctors by notifying them when a patient’s test results are ready. With Auti-Sim, the game was intended to be an educational tool helping people understand what living with autism can be like.
“It would give parents more perspective on what their child was going through,” Barker said.
Hacking Health started in Montreal and spread to cities across the country and around the world. The success of the event in Vancouver—which over 200 people are expected to attend—is a result of the many skilled professionals in the city. “We have a really receptive medical community and we have this well of talent in the tech community,” Barker said.
To encourage more collaboration outside the hackathon, Hacking Health Vancouver is also hosting a workshop at St. Paul’s Hospital on May 14 for health-care professionals and developers to brainstorm solutions to problems in the industry.
The notion of using technology to solve problems in health care isn’t anything new, but it’s increasingly embraced.
“From a health-care perspective no question there is a growing interest in using technology,” Dr. Kendall Ho, director of the e-Health Strategy Office at the University of British Columbia, said in a telephone interview.
Technology is enabling medical professionals to measure and track the industry in ways unlike ever before. Data on the effectiveness of certain procedures or the number of patients being reached by specific services can now be monitored and inspire changes and improvements, Ho explained.
For patients, technology is giving them more control over their health. There are many examples of apps that count calories or check blood pressure, allowing people to monitor their progress.
These apps don’t remove the need to see a doctor but instead help patients and doctors communicate and track issues over time, Ho said. “It’s not replacing the relationship but supporting relationship to make it more robust.”
While doctors, other medical professionals, and patients know what types of tools could improve their relationship with the health-care system, they often don’t have expertise to develop the solutions. This is why it’s important for doctors and patients work with the tech sector, Ho said. “I don’t invent iPads, I don’t invent mobile phones, but I put the context of health care into use.”
The results of collaborations between health and technology industries are already apparent with many new companies launching online health products or services.
Vancouver-based company Medeo has created an online platform for patients and doctors to connect and store records securely. Over 400 doctors and practitioners in B.C. and Ontario have subscribed to the service which allows their patients to connect with them through video conferencing.
“It is a tool that allows the medical authority, medical practitioner, to choose how they’re delivering care,” Michael Smit, Medeo’s chief strategy officer, said in a telephone interview.
Patients can connect to Medeo on their computers, tablets, or smartphones to speak to one of the company’s coordinators about their medical concern—similar to being triaged at a hospital. The coordinator connects with the patient’s doctor who then determines if an online visit is appropriate for their needs.
The doctor seeing their patient on Medeo can write prescriptions or referrals to specialists all through the online platform. All the notes taken during their online visits are kept in a secure e-record that can be transferred to other doctors if necessary.
This type of improved access to health care that’s both quick and easy to use for doctors and patients is among the reasons why so many companies are bridging the gap between medicine and the online world.
“When you think about everything that has been successful on the web it’s all about collaboration, it’s all about coordination of information, it’s about bringing people together,” Smit said. “We see if that we build a product that meets that…we’ll end up with a healthier population.”