New Pill Recognition Software Has Implications for Clinics and EDs

April 13, 2012
Contact: Steve Tokar

Saturday, 2 a.m. A 911 dispatcher receives a frantic call: "I found my roommate passed out. I think she may have overdosed!"

But on what? Imagine if, when first responders arrive on the scene, they point a cell phone camera at pills scattered near the victim, and within seconds, they know what drugs are likely involved.

"In overdose cases like this, where there is uncertainty as to the identity of the pill, a new application could provide real-time identification in the field or emergency room," says Dr. Rahul C. Deo, a UCSF cardiologist and assistant professor at UCSF's Cardiovascular Research Institute.

Deo is collaborating with UCSF medical student David Ouyang to develop a mobile application that can rapidly identify pills based on color, shape and imprint. The project has received a significant boost from the T1 Catalyst Mobile Health Translational Project Award offered by the Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) at UCSF.

The CTSI T1 Catalyst mobile health grant is a tiered award that provides increasing benefit at each of three phases, beginning with feedback and analysis of all proposals. A selected number of awardees are then chosen to receive expert consultation from an exclusive panel of technical, clinical and business experts. In the final phase, one team is awarded $30,000 to develop its early stage idea.

Deo and Ouyang, recipients of the final award, will use the funds to convert the demonstration version of their software into a robust and user-friendly application for handheld devices.

According to Deo, there are a number of potential uses for the software, which can not only identify a pill, but access and display a wide range of information on the medication.

"It could also assist with, or eliminate, manual entry of patient medications into electronic health records, which will help physicians as well as encourage patient participation," Deo says.

Also, in cases when hospital patients are given several medications simultaneously, "the application could serve as a point-of-care verification step for those medications," he adds.

Deo's research is focused on using genetics and bioinformatics to understand fundamental differences in cardiovascular disease processes among patients. He is also interested in applying large amounts of data toward the problem of individualizing patient treatments, he says.

Mobile health technologies have the potential of doing just that, with much more frequent recordings of heart rate and blood pressure, as well as environmental factors such as diet and exercise that we have a very hard time measuring otherwise.

UCSF Provides Fertile Ground for Digital Health Innovation

Deo's award points to the role played by CTSI and the T1 Catalyst mHealth grants in fostering, shaping and developing translational mHealth projects at UCSF, says UCSF neurologist Dr. S. Claiborne Johnston, director of CTSI and associate vice chancellor of research at UCSF.

"Digital health is finally a huge growth area," says Johnston. "It has taken a long time, but now this is a super-hot area for innovation. UCSF and its faculty are perfectly positioned to be contributing the great ideas that become standards a few years from now."

Much of digital health development is being driven by high-tech experts far removed from the front lines of healthcare, according to Dr. Aenor J. Sawyer, co-director of Digital Health initiatives in CTSI's Biomedical Informatics program. This often results in products lacking proper clinical focus, scientific foundation or measures of effectiveness; in contrast to solutions derived from innovators working within clinical care and research.

"To effectively translate digital health ideas into measurable impact, it's important to have a multidisciplinary environment such as UCSF that can support an innovator's concept through development, proof of concept and dissemination," Sawyer said. "It also requires broad collaboration with internal and external experts in areas of clinical care, research, technology, design, fundraising, IP, regulatory and business and marketing strategy."

The capacity for digital technologies to provide, collect and rapidly process data at the point of care also offers great potential to improve health and care, and lower costs, she added.

To facilitate the development of more applications such as Deo's, Sawyer is working closely with Dr. Ida Sim, co-director of CTSI's Biomedical Informatics program, to provide needed infrastructure for developing meaningful and effective digital health care solutions. According to Sim, that includes not only grants and expertise, but also cross-pollination and collaboration through resources such as the CTSI mHealth Innovators Forum.

CTSI is a member of the National Institutes of Health-funded Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CSTA) network focusing on accelerating research to improve health. The Institute provides services, training and funding for researchers at every stage, and promotes online collaboration and networking through UCSF Profiles.

About UCSF Medical Center
UCSF Medical Center consistently ranks as one of the top 10 hospitals in the United States. Recognized for innovative treatments, advanced technology, collaboration among health care professionals and scientists, and a highly compassionate patient care team, UCSF Medical Center serves as the academic medical center of the University of California, San Francisco. The medical center's nationally preeminent programs include children's health, the brain and nervous system, organ transplantation, women's health and cancer. It operates as a self-supporting enterprise within UCSF and generates its own revenues to cover the operating costs of providing patient care.

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