COVID-19 is dramatically altering today’s healthcare environment. With many hospitals at risk of being overburdened and outpatient facilities encouraging social distancing measures, healthcare providers face an unprecedented crisis: How can they continue to serve their patient populations effectively without putting themselves or their patients at risk?

Dr. Koszalinski testing app. Photo courtesy of UTK Nursing.

Two new healthcare apps created by University of Tennessee, Knoxville, researchers may help answer this question. Neither app was developed with a pandemic in mind, but both inventors believe their technology can support individuals indirectly or directly affected by the pandemic.

Rebecca Koszalinski, assistant professor of nursing, researches the development and use of healthcare technology to facilitate rehabilitative and restorative processes in underserved populations, especially areas related to disabilities, vulnerability, and access to care.

Her app, SFM-V (previously named Speak for Myself) was developed for end-users who have disabilities, such as cerebral palsy or spina bifida. SFM-V allows users to easily communicate with their providers in acute-care settings by indicating their pain level, specific needs, and advanced care planning preferences.

Rebecca is passionate about improving communication between patients and healthcare providers because without proper communication, “there is greater opportunity for errors, misunderstandings, and in some cases, unintended decreased quality of care.”

Screens from the SFM-V App

“Apps like SFM-V can assist healthcare providers and patients in communication, symptom management, self-care, and behavioral modification,” Rebecca explained. “Rather than replacing personal care, apps place patients in the driver’s seat. They learn how to manage their needs as a partner in their own healthcare.”

In response to COVID-19 and hospital visitor restrictions, UTRF launched SFM-V this month in Google and Apple stores for free to benefit all patients who need communication assistance.

“We are keenly aware of COVID-19 and recognize that patients who are awake and aware while receiving mechanical ventilation, or those unable to communicate due to oxygen masks or being in prone position, need effective methods of communication,” Rebecca said.

Dr. Abrams. Photo courtesy of UTK College of Social Work.

Thereasa Abrams is an assistant professor of social work whose primary research focuses on the interaction between social work and burn patients and survivors. Her app, the Bridge Mobile App for Burn Patients, is designed to support patients who have been recently discharged from burn centers.

Developed by an interdisciplinary team of UT researchers and the Firefighters Burn Center in Memphis, the app aims to increase the quality of life and resilience of burn patients in short-term recovery. The HIPPA-compliant app provides patients with wound care instructional videos, connects the with recovery resources, and lets them chart their pain, anxiety, itch and mood levels, which their providers can access. The app also sends positive daily messages developed to meet the anticipated level of recovery over the first 90 days.

“I would like to see every burn center have access to this app,” Thereasa commented. “It will make peoples’ lives easier and enhance their post-discharge recovery. If it helps anyone, then I think it is of value.”

Thereasa explained that her app can also offer effective, remote self-care during the pandemic. Though the app is still in testing, the Firefighters Burn Center has expressed interest in using it to support recovering burn patients and protect themselves from exposure.

Screens from the Bridge Mobile App for Burn Patients

“During COVID-19, this app can give patients the information they need and still allow them to maintain social distancing,” Thereasa said. “This distancing is particularly important because when a large area of your skin is burned, you’re more vulnerable to infection.”

Neither SFM-V or the Bridge Mobile App for Burn Patients were created for a pandemic. Nevertheless, these healthcare apps demonstrate their ability to make a difference in the healthcare system and support vulnerable and at-risk populations during this crisis.

“Rebecca and Thereasa are doing incredible work. Their apps highlight the important role technology plays in the healthcare environment,” UTRF Vice President Maha Krishnamurthy said. “UTRF is excited to support these dynamic innovators as they continue to grow their technologies.”