App designed by UBC and Emily Carr researchers to help patients with chronic illnesses get their daily dose of exercise
Medical researchers at the University of British Columbia and designers at Emily Carr University are putting clinical research in the hands of clinicians and patients with a new interactive exercise prescription tool.
Posted by GRAND NCE, January 22, 2014

(VANCOUVER) Everyone knows that exercise is vital to maintaining health, but many are not aware of the importance of exercise in the treatment and prevention of chronic illnesses.

With the medical benefits of physical exercise well established in clinical research, physicians now routinely prescribe exercises to those suffering from chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Yet there remains a translation gap between the research evidence and the application of this knowledge in the real world. In practice, doctors face ongoing challenges in ensuring patients follow their prescribed exercise regime.

At UBC’s School of Kinesiology and Experimental Medicine Program, Associate Professor and GRAND investigator Dr. Darren Warburton aims to improve patient compliance using interactive technology that suits patients’ needs. He and UBC colleague Dr. Shannon Bredin are collaborating with the Emily Carr University’s Health Design Lab, lead by Director and GRAND researcher Jonathan Aitken, on a new clinical exercise app that will make prescribed exercises easier to follow, will better inform patients about their conditions, and will allow doctors to better track a patient’s progress.

“I am hopeful that the tools that we develop will be used by thousands worldwide in short order,” says Dr. Warburton, whose core research addresses the barriers to physical activity faced by people living with chronic illnesses. “Our initial work has led to major advancements in the primary and secondary prevention of chronic disease. Our initial exercise prescription tool has important implications for a wide range of medical conditions.”

Designed for tablets and other touchscreen devices, the application tool allows physicians to customize exercises for patients to perform at home. Linked instructional videos provide added step-by-step instructions. Supplementary in-depth information allows patients to learn more about their condition.

The tool also collects metrics on usage so that both patients and physicians can monitor the progress of the treatment and adjust the prescription as needed. It is also adaptable to a wide range of users including those living with chronic medical conditions or disabilities. Clinical trials will help UBC researchers better understand the effects that physical activity, exercise, and training have on heart function, performance, and health.

Designer input key to development of patient-friendly technology

For Aitken, the collaboration has shown how designers and clinicians working together can accelerate the process of getting research technology into the hands of patients and practitioners. Following the Health Design Lab’s mandate to employ “user-centred” design, the project has put health expertise in the service of the patient.

“Understanding the user experience of a technology helps researchers by adding to their repertoire a different perspective that represents and champions the patient,” says Aitken. Clinicians see how they can fix the problem; designers try to understand the patient’s experiences of emotion, pain, social issues, communications issues.”

Aitken initiated the collaboration with Dr. Warburton through GRAND in March 2013, funded in part under GRAND’s AD-NODE (Art and Design Node) initiative. The two-year initiative aims at building collaborations between art and design researchers at OCAD University, NSCAD University and Emily Carr University of Art + Design with other researchers in the GRAND network.

“AD-NODE has been terrifically effective in bringing art and design to the table with other researchers,” remarks Aitken. “The harder job is getting other researchers to understand that what we do [as designers] should be an embedded part of their process – not an afterthought.”

“Being involved with the GRAND projects and the NCE network has greatly increased the capacity for innovation for our research program, providing our trainees with collaborations that otherwise would have been unlikely,” says Dr. Warburton.

Through the Health Design Lab’s institutional partnerships, including with Vancouver Coastal Health and Providence Health Care, project researchers have had extraordinary access to clinicians for the prototype trials and ethnographic studies. The project team expects to have a final iPad-based app ready for demonstration in April 2014.

In the project’s next phase, researchers will be looking at the use of external plug-ins to collect users’ biometric data in real time, for example heart and breathing rates. By interfacing with an intelligent voice system similar to Apple’s Siri, users with medical conditions such as irregular heart rhythm may also receive warnings when their heart rate approaches an unsafe level and suggest ways to bring it back down.

“[It involves] no new technology – just a really interesting, imaginative way to apply existing technology,” explains Aitken.

Project offshoot to focus on Canada’s indigenous communities

Bolstered by a $25,000 grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the ECU-UBC collaboration is about to expand in a new direction.

The research team will build on their previous work to take aim at the prevention and treatment of cardiometabolic disease – the combined impact of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity – in Canadian indigenous peoples.

The project is informed by earlier collaborations between the project team and Indigenous communities that revealed a lack of culturally appropriate resources for Canada’s indigenous youth and adults to deal with the prevention of chronic diseases (and obesity). A new “culturally-specific” design for the prescription tool will address specific needs of this population overlooked by a more generic “off-the-shelf” design. Aitken sees user-centred or “participatory” design methods as a key to understanding this cultural context.

“For me, it’s a really interesting project because [the question is:] ‘how do you develop an app that’s culturally-specific?’ To the best of my knowledge, that is fairly new,” says Aitken. “We have to go to that community, find out what they need in this problem space, and then go back and look at how we might provide access to those needs.”

“All the knowledge in the world isn’t going to benefit anyone unless it meets user needs. Clinicians are great at studying what they study, but they are not necessary great at studying user needs,” he added.

Aitken and Dr. Warburton will be consulting world-leading health experts, application designers, and Indigenous leaders. Emily Carr’s Aboriginal Program, led by Brenda Crabtree, will also assist in the project.

For Dr. Warburton, the new project will continue the innovative work that has grown out of his team’s involvement with GRAND projects.

“I believe sincerely that the work that we are doing with Emily Carr will be some of the most important and innovative work that our group has done. Our collaborations have been instrumental in moving our program ahead, and allowing us to create innovative products for the world to use.”



Media Contact:

Spencer Rose