The abundance of personal smartphones in southern African countries got University of Washington professor Sarah Gimbel thinking: What if these phones were used by front-line health workers—namely nurses—to collect and analyze data on patients living with HIV or AIDS to improve their care?
Gimbel, an implementation scientist at the UW School of Nursing, tested her hypothesis and found that smartphone applications, or apps, have the potential to improve efforts to combat HIV/AIDS and other diseases both in the African subcontinent and around the world. By designing software for mobile devices, Gimbel believes that will empower nurses by putting cutting-edge tools into their hands.
“I want to get nurses more engaged in the process of analyzing and using their data,” said Gimbel, who holds an adjunct appointment in the Department of Global Health.
Nurses provide care but also collect data. If they can be actively engaged in using that data, it can lead to improvements in data quality and, ultimately, better health outcomes, Gimbel said.
In a paper published in the September issue of Current HIV/AIDS Reports, Gimbel and her co-authors evaluated the current use of mobile phones and tablets in HIV-related care in low- and middle-income countries around the world. The use of this new technology in the health care system is also known as “mHealth.”
The authors found that a larger selection of phone applications, or apps, are needed to improve the tremendous resources that have been provided to improve HIV/AIDS prevention, care and treatment. And the applications must be designed to be used by huge volumes of users, in other words, to scale.
“Scientists, researchers and practitioners increasingly are borrowing tools from engineering and bringing them to the intersection of quality improvement and health,” Gimbel said.
Leveraging existing health resources – including smartphones – will help nurses work better and smarter, Gimbel said. Nearly 100 percent of the world’s population lives within reach of a cellphone signal, and many nurses in developing economies are able to afford a smartphone. Smartphones can run apps to collect and transmit data of all kinds, from patient adherence information to monitoring drug protocols, and more.
Gimbel and her team focused on HIV/AIDS as opposed to other chronic conditions due to its burden and the amount of resources that have been invested to fight the pandemic. “It’s our laboratory to understand how to make chronic care systems work. So HIV is our testing ground,” Gimbel said. “It has a lot of commonalities with other chronic diseases.”
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