Students design prototypes that can predict your health

September 6, 2013
A group of summer school students have developed a digital service that calculates a person’s risk of developing lifestyle diseases based on health indicators. Credit: Jesper Lee Jyderup

The Danish health sector offers many different types of treatment, but how will it fare as the population ages and more people develop chronic illnesses? Students taking part in an interdisciplinary summer programme designed digital prototypes that may someday shape our health service. After taking their exam, the students presented their prototypes to a panel of experts and their business partner.

A group of summer school students have developed a digital service that calculates a person's risk of developing lifestyle diseases based on health indicators. The project is targeted at men between the ages of 30 and 60, who typically visit the doctor two weeks too late.

"The digital prototype that we have designed is dynamic, so the user can update their by inputting their level of physical activity, their intake of food, alcohol and cigarettes, as well as their BMI. So if a user starts exercising 30 minutes a day, he will immediately notice that his chances of staying healthy improve. This type of self-monitoring works because it doesn't use threats. Instead it offers a tool that is personal, relevant and easy to use. The goal is make people more interested in improving their health, as well as making them aware of how they can do that," says Lea Glerup, a psychology student at the University of Copenhagen who participated in the Digital Services Innovation in Healthcare summer school programme.

Over the past three weeks, Glerup worked together with a group of students from the Technical University of Denmark studying Design and Innovation, Management Engineering, Medicine and Technology, along with Communication and IT students from the University of Copenhagen. This dynamic group created a detailed product, though the process was demanding and required the students' complete focus.

"We had three intense weeks of summer school that included lectures from a wide range of experts. The learning curve was steep and an ordinary course would never be put together like this. But I thought it was cool because we got to see all the phases in concept development and got a general understanding of a rather complex field," Glerup says.

A boost for the business sector

The summer school is part of a major interdisciplinary university programme focusing on innovation and entrepreneurship in the field of digital healthcare. Including entrepreneurship encourages contact with private firms, which is why its business partner, the Danish Quality Unit of General Practice (DAK-E), a quality assurance group for general practitioners and regional health councils, kept a close eye on the students' work.

Lars Bruun Larsen, of DAK-E, describes the project students were given:

"As the population ages and has lifestyles that increase the risk of developing a chronic illness, the health service faces increasing challenges. That is why there is a growing need to promote healthy habits and to try and prevent diseases before they develop. But the health service has no entry point for people who want to improve their health simply by changing their lifestyle. That is why we presented this challenge to create an internet portal to promote healthy living and preventative care. The goal is to promote healthier habits by identifying and motivating people who need to change their behaviour."

DAK-E presented case studies that were selected to challenge the students' creativity and curiosity. Larsen, though, said he also left inspired.

"I followed the students from their very first idea through to the final product. They dealt with the case studies they were presented very elegantly and in a way that demonstrates their creativity, knowledge and innovation. They were good at 'thinking inside the box' and have actually given me a new way of looking at my work. I hope it is not the last time that we deliver cases to a course like this one."

A concentration of knowledge

The summer school participants were selected from the University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen Business School and the Technical University of Denmark, along with from foreign universities. The interdisciplinary approach ensures that throughout the long and complex development a disease might have, it will always be possible to understand it. It also lays a foundation for innovation in digital services – a new field with enormous potential.

The future of health care is digital

Digital services are central to the future of the health service. Course leader Troels Mønsted, a postdoc in the Department of Computer Science, explains their potential:

"There is a great need to plan and share information among the professionals who are in contact with the patient, such as the GP, hospital doctors, nurses, pharmacists and physiotherapists. If it all has to be done manually, by writing in a paper record, or by email or telephone, the process can become long-winded. Digital systems are useful because they can manage different types of information and be flexible in unpredictable situations. They are also a perfect tool for dealing with a new trend in healthcare that sees patients getting involved in planning their own preventative treatment. That was why we chose it as the theme for the summer school this year."

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