Exploring Digital Health Innovation at BWH
Apple famously coined a phrase that has come to define our relationship with technology: “There’s an app for that.” The sentiment behind the 2009 slogan continues to resonate today in health care, as seen in the cutting-edge apps and gadgets showcased at a recent symposium hosted by the Brigham Digital Innovation Hub (iHub).
More than 250 clinicians, scientists, entrepreneurs and other digital health enthusiasts learned about the latest advancements in technology during the “Digital Health and the Transformation of Care” event on May 17. The half-day symposium, held in the Building for Transformative Medicine, was filled with standing-room-only speaking events and a bustling expo.
“I look out at all of you here today and know that you are our opportunity,” said Brigham Health President Betsy Nabel, MD, speaking to a packed room during the event’s keynote address. “It’s our investment in you, your talents, your skills and your ideas that is going to take us forward. At the end of the day, our greatest resource is all of you.”
Meeting Patients Where They Are
Kicking off the half-day symposium was a panel about digital innovation in behavioral health. Ash Nadkarni, MD, of the Department of Psychiatry, shared her efforts to develop a cognitive behavioral therapy app for Amazon’s Echo – a small speaker embedded with a digital assistant, “Alexa,” that responds to voice commands to play music, make calls, provide information and more.
Nadkarni works closely with BWH’s Crohn’s and Colitis Center to care for patients who cope with depression, anxiety and other mood disorders in addition to – or as a result of – the challenges of their gastrointestinal disease. Their condition makes it difficult to come into Boston for frequent therapy appointments, Nadkarni said. The Echo app, on the other hand, can bring treatment to them.
Karen Fasciano, PsyD, also of Psychiatry, helps young cancer patients navigate the emotional challenges of their illness. She is in the process of working with iHub to develop a mobile app, with input from patients, that will provide resources on coping skills, ways for patients to share their narrative via social networking and a place for peer support.
“Technology not only can be used by patients independently but also in the context of clinical care,” Fasciano said. “For example, we facilitate Twitter chats to help young patients tweet about emotional coping, and I review these in my clinical sessions to stimulate conversation and reinforce skills that peers find helpful – thus integrating peer connection and skill-based learning.”
To fulfill the promise of digital health, it is essential to ensure it is used in the right ways, explained iHub Executive Director Lesley Solomon, MBA.
“In addition to us working with the community, both internally and externally, we are working closely with leadership to understand the challenges of the hospital so that we can find the solutions that make the most sense for us,” she said.
During a session called “The Future Is Now,” BWH innovators discussed novel projects they’re working on to improve care both in and out of the hospital.
When patients don’t take medication correctly, an issue known as non-adherence, the results are poorer health outcomes and increased health care costs. To help solve the problem, Giovanni Traverso, MD, BChir, PhD, of the Division of Gastroenterology, is developing a capsule that can stay in a person’s stomach for several weeks and be programmed to release the medication at the correct dosage and intervals.
Jayender Jagadeesan, PhD, of the Department of Radiology, sees opportunity for innovation inside the operating room. During the event, he showcased his efforts to develop surgical navigation systems that use mixed and augmented reality, technologies that merge real-world objects with a virtual world. Using head-mounted displays, Jagadeesan is working on ways to display diagnostic and intraprocedural images in a surgeon’s field of vision – with virtual images of a tumor, for example, overlaid on the patient while they are on the operating table.
The Path to Success
Brigham entrepreneurs also shared their thoughts on launching a digital health startup company.
Omar Badri, MD, a resident in Internal Medicine and the Harvard Combined Dermatology Residency Program, Brad Diephuis, MD, MBA, of the Internal Medicine Residency Program, and Peter Najjar, MD, MBA, a resident in Surgery, discussed the process of establishing a startup while balancing the demands of residency.
Although they cautioned that starting a company can be time-consuming and expensive, especially during residency, they highlighted several benefits. Forming a relationship with a hospital has allowed their startups to perform pilots and long-term studies. In certain circumstances, hospitals can also provide resources for product development.
Panelists also talked about the challenges associated with selling a new technology to a hospital and the benefits of knowing the right people to work with to push an implementation forward.
“You want to find an internal champion,” Badri said. “That’s really critical when you’re an early startup that doesn’t have a lot of validated data or big reputation.”
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