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Three medical students at laptops.

On the pulse of health care apps

College of Medicine faculty/student team creates program to teach fellow students how to assess, use tools for patients

Contact: Gary H. Piatek

​Looking for a mobile health/medical app? You aren't alone, and you don't have to look far. In the Apple App Store alone, your choices have risen from nearly 30,000 in 2015 to more than 45,000 today.

As health apps continue to evolve and more patients use them, physicians must keep pace. To ensure that Central Michigan University College of Medicine graduates are in sync with the latest technology, three medical students have developed a program that will begin this fall.

"This is the future of how health care will be delivered," said Brian Shear, who has just finished his second year of medical school. "We want our students to be as prepared as possible when they graduate."

So Shear, who recently helped develop a surgical e-book for the Yale Cancer Center, assembled a team to devise a plan that would keep fellow CMU medical students in pace with the changes.

"We went into medical school to treat patients, not type into our laptops. Knowing the data ahead of an office visit allows us to reclaim some of that valuable time to be with our patients." — Brian Shear

He worked with Dr. Robert Petersen, chair of foundational sciences; Dr. Michael Elftman, chair of the curriculum committee; and first-year medical students Christopher Twilling and Caleb Pawl to create the program that also will give graduates another tool to help fulfill the college's mission of reaching the rural and medically underserved regions of Michigan.

Petersen gave the example of a patient who lives on a farm 50 miles from the doctor's office and is experiencing some symptoms. If the person had previously consulted with the doctor on finding quality medical apps or wearable technology, the physician could accurately determine if the symptoms required immediate attention or could wait until the next checkup.

"Since transportation is a large issue in underserved communities, being able to make decisions for people while they are at home is really important," he said.

Teaching a skill, not an app

Because of the rapidly changing market for apps, the program will teach students how to find, validate and assess the benefits of the most popular mobile health care applications, Twilling said.

They will look at how well the apps meet patients' needs and how well they help the physician collect and monitor patient data, he said.

To gain inside knowledge and expertise, Shear has reached out to app makers such as Apple, Microsoft and Google provide hands-on training. Apple is the first to commit, he said.

The goal, however, isn't to learn any particular platform, because physicians will use a variety of software.

"We are teaching a skill, not how to use an app," Shear emphasized.

Putting apps to the test

Students will first learn about the science, ethics and legal considerations when using apps in health care, in addition to seeing how current data supports or refutes the use of medical apps in some situations, Shear said.

Then they will apply their knowledge to clinical and patient situations.

Twilling gave this example: Students will study a hypothetical case, such as a patient who has had a heart attack and needs apps to help monitor various conditions.

"What do you choose, an app that focuses on monitoring heart rate and blood pressure, an exercise app, medication reminders, diet?"

Students will search available apps, evaluate the pros and cons of each, and choose the ones they think will best help with the patient's condition.

Then a doctor in the specialty will discuss their selections and make recommendations.

Students also will learn how to integrate apps into existing medical records systems.

Collaboration and dissemination

The team is working with Andrew Richards, chief technology incubation officer at Washington State University's College of Medicine, who also is trying to work mobile health apps into its curriculum, Shear said.

The goal in collaborating is to have two programs working in parallel and then compare results to see what worked and what didn't. Once they have made the necessary adjustments, they expect to publish what would essentially be a playbook for other medical schools to follow.

"We will say, 'Here's how two small medical schools did it. You can do it, too,'" he said.

Long term, they are reaching out to the American Association of Medical Colleges to do presentations and suggest refinements to make the program available nationally.

But the very next phase is to try to integrate it into the College of Medicine's partner in Saginaw, CMU Health, Shear said.

"We went into medical school to treat patients, not type into our laptops. Knowing the data ahead of an office visit allows us to reclaim some of that valuable time to be with our patients."

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