Arif Kamal wanted to develop a mobile app that teaches patients how to take their medications safely while watching for signs of addiction.
He had a name for the app: “Symmetry.” And he had an idea of how it would work but needed funding for the project. He got assistance from Duke’s Mobile App Gateway to secure a $500,000 grant with Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina.
“I don’t know if the project would have gotten that much funding if it wasn’t for the Mobile App Gateway,” said Kamal, associate professor of medicine and business administration in Duke’s School of Medicine.
From concept through deployment, the Mobile App Gateway provides consultation, toolkits and education for staff, faculty and students interested in creating mobile technology. Advisers lead Duke community members to on-and-off campus resources for development, investment opportunities and prototyping. Consultation is free; other services may be fee-based.
The Mobile App Gateway, which is overseen by the Duke Clinical & Translational Science Institute, launched in 2017 and has consulted with about 225 individuals from the University and Health System.
“Building mobile technology is complicated and nuanced,” said Katie D. McMillan, associate director of the Mobile App Gateway. “An app could be the answer you’re looking for or it might be a texting message service. Our team has unique expertise to advise on appropriate technical solutions and get a project off the ground.”
The Mobile App Gateway staff is curating a digital health device library, planning its second annual Digital Health Conference, and collaborating with Duke’s Digital Strategy Office to prescribe mobile apps to patients.
Here are some examples of how the Mobile App Gateway team is helping launch projects into the digital world.
Assistant Professor in Duke’s School of Nursing
Schenita Randolph has devoted her academic career to decreasing HIV infections among black males.
While Randolph’s research originally focused on outreach in barber shops, she realized the conversation about health risks in the barbershop setting was evolving and many customers were on their smartphones.
“People are looking at their phones while waiting for appointments, and although conversations are happening, the phone is in everyone’s hand,” Randolph said. “It made me realize there was this culture shift. I needed to infuse technology into my project.”
Randolph decided on a mobile app. She received a $50,000 grant in 2018 to develop an app on health communication and healthy sexual behaviors for black adolescents and their fathers.
Staff with the Mobile App Gateway helped Randolph secure a developer, Onyx Ocean Technologies, and worked with the Office of Research Contracts to form an agreement. The app is currently in development, and Randolph is finalizing a name for the product.
“It was important we had a diverse group of developers because I wanted people that could connect with the community the app is for,” Randolph said. “It was helpful to have the Mobile App Gateway partner with me to secure an expert in mobile app development. It gave me time to focus on the content of the app.”
James Fox, MD, FAAP
Professor of Pediatrics in the Duke Department of Pediatrics
James Fox wanted to create an app for medical trainees in the Pediatric and Family Medicine Residencies, and Physician Assistant and Doctor of Physical Therapy training programs so individuals could easily perform prompted, periodic self-assessments on their wellness.
“The goal was to remove some real or perceived obstacles that may prevent trainees from communicating with their program leadership when they are unwell,” Fox said. “The app would hopefully improve the lines of communications between trainees and leadership with regards to personal and programmatic frustrations and joys. This was one way to address factors that contribute to burnout in our medical trainees.”
Fox planned to apply for a $10,000 grant to create the app and met with Katie McMillan, who said it would cost at least $11,000 to develop the technology. She recommended Fox develop a text-message service instead; that would cost about $3,500.
McMillan connected him to Jason Lones, an IT analyst for the Duke Office of Clinical Research, to build a text-message service.
As part of this “Wellness Fuel Tank” project, about 150 trainees in the four School of Medicine pilot programs now receive a weekly text, which prompts them to self-rate their wellness levels from zero (empty) to four (full). Fox receives the numbers so he can track how residents feel over time.
Participants receive an automatic response based on what they submit. For example, if a trainee indicates their Wellness Fuel Tank is empty, that trainee immediately receives a message that a program leader will be in touch with them in the near future, in addition to a phone number for immediate mental health assistance.
“Katie understood the purpose of this tool, understood the cost constraints and offered a solution that was better than I could have imagined,” Fox said. “Her help was phenomenal.”
Associate Professor of Medicine and Business Administration in the School of Medicine
There was no playbook for Arif Kamal to follow when he developed his first mobile app in 2015.
He didn’t know whom to reach out to, how much the project would cost or how long it would take to create. All Kamal knew was he wanted to create “PCforMe” to help patients understand palliative care and prepare for upcoming appointments.
It took two years for Kamal and his team to finish the app.
“We were learning at every step on our own,” he said. “It made us inefficient. We needed someone to guide us.”
Now Kamal is working with the Mobile App Gateway to design another app that helps prevent opioid abuse. “Symmetry” will include educational content to teach patients how to take their medications, how to watch for signs of addiction and how to store and dispose of pills.
Kamal and McMillan met for a series of meetings to discuss the concept and potential funding. She helped him successfully apply for a $500,000 grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina. McMillan also connected him with a mobile technology news outlet for an article on his project.
The app is currently in development with the involvement of several content experts from across the Duke campus.
“I brought the research voice to the grant application, and Katie conveyed the technological expertise,” Kamal said. “We were able to bring our two worlds together for this project.”
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