Life-changing apps help solve problems in medicine and health care

Numbers in the shape of a heartAs a doctoral student at The Ohio State University College of Medicine, Derek Harmon, PhD, developed a novel anatomy mobile app for integrated medical curricula. This started his quest to develop educational technology to integrate gross anatomy with its subdisciplines and collaborative environments to create clinical and learning-based solutions.

Dr. Harmon is now a clinical associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Education and Anatomy at the Ohio State College of Medicine. He created the OSU-COM App Development Competition, or App-a-Thon, to bring together clinicians, faculty, researchers and students in the university’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering. They work together to develop app ideas into protypes and, at the same time, create the infrastructure needed to translate ideas into solutions.

“This event allows principal investigators to submit an idea for an app that will help them solve current problems in their practice that can improve patient care, communication and education,” Dr. Harmon says. “Often, these project ideas that PIs have never get started because hiring an app development company is cost prohibitive.”

This year’s top three winners at App-a-Thon illustrate the power of collaboration through mentorship throughout the rigorous process of developing and testing technology:

  • 1st place: Lymphedema Scanner allows smartphones to scan a 3D image of face and neck swelling to track fluctuations over time.
  • 2nd place: IVAlert allows for 24/7 nurse and anesthesiologist communication to streamline IV access.
  • 3rd place: ClearSkin identifies, localizes and quantitates acne and acneiform lesions through facial images to graphically display skin disease trajectory in relation to medications, diets and other holistic interventions.

As one of only a few surgeons in the country who can perform two breakthrough surgical treatments to relieve lymphedema, Roman Skoracki, MD, works with patients who have cancer, from diagnosis through treatment and recovery. He serves as the medical director of the Stefanie Spielman Comprehensive Breast Center and the division director of surgery and oncologic plastic surgery at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James). He had an amazing experience with the undergraduate students in his group and was impressed by their maturity, focus and enthusiasm for his app idea.

“Their coding expertise was phenomenal, and they patiently walked me through the process of our app design,” Dr. Skoracki says. “The group was flexible and enjoyed the process of solving problems. It was a great pleasure to work with such a talented group of computer science gurus.” 

Mark Drew, PhD, clinical assistant professor and director of graduate education in Microbial Infection and Immunity at the College of Medicine, describes the App-a-Thon as an enriching two-week “sprint” for all participants, where students actively engaged in understanding the needs and language of his field, while he similarly devoted himself to comprehending theirs.

“Together, we worked as a team to share knowledge and learn from each other,” Dr. Drew says. “Our ideas and the prototype we produced are remarkable for such a short period of time.”

Benjamin Kaffenberger, MD, clinical associate professor of Dermatology at the College of Medicine, says the students he worked with were brilliant, interested and energetic in their efforts to bring some failed technology back to life.

“They were able to take an idea and an existing patent and really user-friendly interface for the existing algorithm and adapt it to create a way researchers at pharmaceutical companies can ensure therapies are used and working.”

App-a-Thon provides multidisciplinary teams the opportunity to work together to develop a multitude of health care apps, which could increase access and assessment of care.

“We connected with a fantastic group of students who provided us with a primer on what goes into app development and what goes on behind the scenes,” says Willi Tarver, DPH, assistant professor of Internal Medicine in the Division of Cancer Prevention and Control at the OSUCCC– James. “In turn, we hope it gave the students a taste of health care and how technology can be used to promote care."

The event will be held annually with updated themes each year to broaden the submissions received from the university and College of Medicine communities.