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MUHC produces health apps at Hackathon

Nancy LowMONTREAL – Healthcare professionals from the Montreal University Health Centre devised innovative solutions at the Design Challenge Montreal event, which was held in the city last month. Their prototypes included systems to keep depressed patients on track; an app to prepare children for MRI exams; and a predictive software tool for spotting breast cancer in mammograms.

The Design Challenge was organized by Hacking Health – a group that fosters collaboration among front-line clinicians, healthcare workers and technology experts to produce solutions to healthcare problems.

After three weeks of intense work, eight teams had a chance to pitch their prototypes to investors and more than 200 health technology entrepreneurs, healthcare professionals and industry leaders. Four MUHC health practitioners were among the finalists.

• Dr. Nancy Low (pictured), a psychiatrist in the Mood Disorders Program at the Royal Victoria Hospital and clinical director of the McGill Mental Health Service, was eager to find a solution to help patients adhere to their treatment plans between appointments.

Dr. Low and her team created OnTrack, an app that gives patients timely access to guidance on three types of treatment for mild to moderate depression: mood monitoring, medication and talk therapy homework, which includes doing suggested pleasurable activities.

Although the combination of those treatments is very effective, patients have a hard time following them, so they fall off their plan and can even get worse.

Dr. Low’s team devised an app that impressed the crowd at the Design Challenge. They received an award from the Anges Quebec Network, a prize from FounderFuel, as well as The Pitch Most Likely to Succeed award from the Development Bank of Canada.

Dr. Low and her team also received positive responses from the many attendees of the events. “They told me the app touched them because they knew people who had been affected in some way by depression,” she said “They are eagerly waiting for it to come online.”

• Sylvia Papazian, an administrative agent in the Radiology Department of the Royal Victoria Hospital, with the help of a team of experts, developed an app to help reduce stress in children going through MRI exams. “When my son was two years old, he had a traumatizing experience during an MRI for a suspected brain tumour,” she says. “As parents, we were so anxious about the results that we didn’t think of preparing our kids for the exam itself. The MRI involves lying in a dark and loud tunnel for 15 minutes without moving or talking.”

The app involves a game about a secret mission to the moon and astronauts disguised as nurses and doctors. It trains kids to get used to the sounds of the MRI machine and to not move or talk during the exam. Papazian was very touched by the support she got from her department. “It’s nice to see that there’s space for innovation within the MUHC,” she says.

Even before the finale, her app, The Children’s Empowerment Story, had already attracted attention from pediatric clinics and imaging innovation companies. “This competition feels like a dream to me,” says Papazian. “As a team we’ve already decided we’re going through with this project and we’re going to make it work.”

Papazian will get some help in her enterprise. She won a prize from Cossette Lab during the Challenge, as well as support from the Anges Quebec Network.

• As an orthopaedic surgery resident operating at six different hospitals, Dr. Hans Van Lancker knows how hard it is to keep his case logs organized. “It’s our responsibility to keep personal logs of all our cases,” he says. “This information is required by health institutions and government bodies, but there is currently no standardized system for entering and storing the data, so it ends up scattered on scraps of paper or in Excel documents.”

Dr. Van Lancker and his team of designers and programmers created Pearl, an app that helps physicians to keep the data of their cases clearly and concisely organized. Although case logs do not contain information that can be linked to specific patients, they should nevertheless be secure.

“An added advantage of Pearl is that the app will be password protected for added security beyond what is currently available.” Pearl piqued the interest of many investors and Dr. Van Lancker is confident it will be adopted and used on a daily basis. “Our app is designed specifically for doctors and provides the efficiency and security necessary for the field,” he says.

• Less than a year ago, Dr. Jonathan Kanevsky, a resident in Plastic Surgery at the Montreal General Hospital, had the idea of applying the principles of machine learning to early breast cancer detection. With the help of mathematicians and programmers, he created Envisionary, a software system that helps radiologists prevent misdiagnosis and predict breast cancer.

“Artificial Intelligence is already used in many contexts in our everyday lives,” he explains. “Our email, for example, has a spam filter with an algorithm trained to detect words and patterns that resemble spam. That same idea can be applied to a series of images in mammograms.”

According to Dr. Kanevsky, patterns that lead to breast cancer aren’t always visible to the human eye.

“I once had a patient who had a mammogram that was benign, but when she came back a year later, it showed extensive disease,” he says. “Something had happened within that year that wasn’t detectable.”

Envisionary was one of the winners at the Hacking Health Challenge, attracting the attention of start-up accelerator FounderFuel. “This is a very big undertaking. The founding principles have been laid. I hope that we’ll develop a solid team that can make this idea a reality,” says Dr. Kanevsky, who is happy to see that there’s an infrastructure in Montreal that supports technological innovation in healthcare.

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