Science & Technology

Patients Know Best

Project banks on nobody knowing your health better than you do.

A Band-Aid that can detect infection. A dinner plate that records how much food it holds. A teddy bear that not only reminds children when it’s time to take medication at school, but alerts their parents if they skip a dose.

Sound a little bit like The Jetsons?

“That’s what we’re going for,” says Patti Brennan MS’84, PhD’86, national director of Project HealthDesign. “It’s a future where you can’t see the computer, but it’s everywhere for health.”

The $10 million program, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, will award grants later this year to five research teams with expertise in fields including medicine, psychology, and computer science. Their proposals offer inventive ways for patients to capture and store health-related information from their daily lives — such as when they skip medications — to help them and their caregivers better manage chronic conditions ranging from diabetes to hypertension to rheumatoid arthritis.

Brennan, a professor in the School of Nursing and chair of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, says the resulting personal health records can serve as much more than a warehouse of data. Collecting daily observations of patient experiences and feelings can serve as a “platform for action” for people to improve their health, she says.

Project HealthDesign’s first round of grants in 2006 yielded concepts including the “MediTeddy,” a medication- management assistant for children with cystic fibrosis, and Living Profiles, a kind of health-focused MySpace for chronically ill teens aimed at getting them to take responsibility for their health.

“You know more about yourself than anybody else does,” says Brennan, also one of five UW faculty recently selected to lead research teams at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. “Your ability to mobilize — to act on that — might be the key to your health behaviors.”

Published in the Winter 2009 issue


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