Researchers team up for concussion app development

Concussions have made headlines a lot lately—primarily in relation to collegiate and professional sports and athletes returning to the field before making a full recovery.

Yet, many individuals suffer concussions each year, and concerns about managing symptoms appropriately and returning to normal activity are present in the wider population as well. Concussions occur as a result of car accidents, recreational activity, slip-and-falls and in many other contexts.

Schieman

Dr. Karen Schieman, assistant professor in the Bronson School of Nursing, and Dr. Alan Rea, professor of business information systems, have teamed up to develop a mobile application that will help patients manage their symptoms post-injury and track their progress during their recovery period. Recently awarded a grant of $9,500 from the Society of Trauma Nurses to fund the next stage of the app’s development, the professors are engaging students in the process of building the application.

How did this project begin?

Schieman did research on concussion injuries for her dissertation. “I looked at what people do to manage symptoms on their own after they have a concussion,” says Schieman. “What I found is that patients try random things, without always knowing if those techniques are good or bad for them. For instance, several people said that they used drugs or alcohol to manage their symptoms, and that is not a good idea.”

Schieman helped with some revisions to the discharge instructions that people receive in emergency departments. However, patients candidly shared that they typically don’t remember what those instructions are after they leave.

From there, she wanted to determine if there was a better way to educate patients about concussion symptom management.

She began thinking of a mobile application as a way to provide ongoing education to patients. Symptom management applications have been successful in longer duration diseases, such as cancer, and with chronic conditions, such as multiple sclerosis. Though concussion symptoms typically abate in less than three months, Schieman knows that those three months are critical in patients’ cognitive recovery.

Realizing she would need expertise in IT and programming to create this app, she reached out to Rea and told him about her idea.

Rea

She began thinking of a mobile application as a way to provide ongoing education to patients. Symptom management applications have been successful in longer duration diseases, such as cancer, and with chronic conditions, such as multiple sclerosis. Though concussion symptoms typically abate in less than three months, Schieman knows that those three months are critical in patients’ cognitive recovery.

Realizing she would need expertise in IT and programming to create this app, she reached out to Rea and told him about her idea.

The two came up with a game plan to work together, enlisting students in both IT and nursing to work on the project. Multiple student developers have worked on the project, with Rea recruiting students from his mobile development classes.

“Currently, students have developed multiple iterations of the project,” says Rea. “We use an agile approach called extreme programming, where segments of the mobile application are developed and tested in short development cycles and evaluated both from technical and usability standpoints. This requires constant interaction between the developers and health care professionals as we work to make sure each component will address particular needs, but it also allows us to revise the app and adopt additional requirements more readily.”

Students write multiple iterations of the sample components for the app, refining each before continuing with the next. This way the application can be deployed for testing early and often.

Rea admits that the hardest part of this process for his students is the cultural shift that needs to occur so they can avoid feeling like they are releasing an “unfinished” product, as they work through the development stages.

Senior IT student Austin Lemacks, who has been working on the development of the app, is getting a lot out of the experience. “Extreme programming is a model I’ve heard quite a bit about in class, but being able to experience it first-hand has given me a much better understanding of how it works. In my opinion, it is a great way to develop a project. Extreme programming is highly responsive to the changing demands of the client and is a way to keep the client included in the development. As features are developed, they are reviewed and discussed. The client benefits tremendously from being able to weigh in on the current state of the project.”

Business students are learning what it means to develop code in an agile environment with a multi-disciplinary team. And nursing students are learning to communicate their clinical needs to create new, beneficial tools that could measurably improve patient outcomes.

“Health care providers will be able to recommend the use of this mobile application to their patients,” says Schieman. “The app will allow patients to rate their symptoms daily, which they can share with their health care provider if they wish. It will help the patient to be able to see that their symptoms are getting better slowly over time, and they will also to be able to see what strategies have the greatest affect on their symptoms. Patients should improve more quickly employing recommended symptom management strategies rather than guessing at what to do on their own.”

Though the IT students have worked on various prototypes up to this point, this fall they will be deploying a working application that goes beyond previous controlled tests. They will now measure how well the app works in actual clinical settings.

Lemacks looks forward to getting the app ready for release, which will involve presenting user data in an easy-to-use and intuitive way. “I’m pretty excited about working on the graphing system for patient data. Figuring out the best way to present the information for users and researchers without it being overwhelming should be an interesting challenge, and I’m looking forward to it.”