The Verbal Advantage
In 2008, Professor Emeritus Theodore Morse (ECE), who was then the Director of Boston University’s Laboratory for Lightwave Technology, suffered a heart attack followed shortly by a stroke.
The experience was scary enough but then it was followed by some alarming side effects Morse wasn’t prepared for.
“I couldn’t speak a word nor was I able to write, and yet, my perceptions of the world were intact,” he said.
While Morse was in the hospital, he couldn’t convey even the simplest requests like needing food or worse – that he was in pain.
A new application made to work on iPads may change the experience for patients like Morse in the future. And the best part? It was created by his own students.
Designed by Nick Dougherty (ECE ’12), Eric Hsiao (ECE ’12), and Gregory Zoeller (ECE ’12), the app, Verbal, was Morse’s idea for a senior design project in 2011-12. Final research projects are an annual tradition in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering (ECE). The experience allows undergraduates to design and prototype a product, electronic device, or software system and present it in front of faculty, staff, students, and engineering professionals at the end of the spring semester.
Morse asked Dougherty, Hsiao, and Zoeller, along with their senior design teammates, Kenneth Zhong (ECE ’12) and Kholood Al Tabash (ECE ’12), to come up with a design that would allow patients, caregivers, and nurses to communicate with each other even if there are speech or language barriers.
The team took initiative by shadowing nurses at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), speaking with information services and technology professionals, and meeting with stakeholders within the hospital. From their research, they released their first design: iMedix.
The app allowed patients who spoke different languages or suffered from speech disabilities to use features such as picture-based icons to better communicate their needs to nurses. With the click of a button, patients could let their nurses know that they needed water, wanted to use the bathroom or a number of other options.
“We knew from the first semester that we’d eventually want to turn [the iMedix project] into a business,” said Dougherty. “We thought of the project outside the context of senior design and treated it in a professional way.”
A panel of ECE alumni judges saw the potential of their work and awarded Team iMedix the Entrepreneurial Award. The students went on to take second place in the College of Engineering Societal Impact Capstone Project Awards, given to projects that are likely to have the biggest impact on society.
Dougherty, Hsiao, and Zoeller saw the potential of continuing their work, as did Zoeller’s mother, a nurse who said they’d be crazy not to keep pursuing the product. Now under the name Red Electric Consulting, they are working with Morse to bring their platform to market.
The task is not easy. By day, Dougherty and Zoeller work as web developers at Homesite, and Hsiao is a software engineer at Hubspot. If that isn’t enough, Dougherty also heads the non-profit, Project Mailbox. At night and on weekends though, their focus turns to Verbal.
“It helps that we’re all in Boston and have each other to bounce ideas off of,” said Hsiao.
“That was something that stemmed from senior design,” added Zoeller. “We definitely had late nights in college where we were collaborating and doing just that.”
In the meantime, familiar faces in ECE like senior design project advisor, Associate Professor of the Practice Alan Pisano (ECE), and Morse have offered their help and guidance.
Currently, Morse is assisting in the grant application process which could help make Verbal a commercially viable product. He will serve as Principal Investigator on Red Electric’s National Institute of Health Small Business Innovative Research grant, slated to begin in August if awarded, that includes the Massachusetts General Hospital as a partner. Morse and Red Electric have even obtained a letter of support for the grant and product from Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. With the Senator’s support, the Verbal team is working toward a partnership with the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs to establish communications solutions for veterans suffering from brain injuries or speech impediments.
Along with Dougherty, Morse also plans to present the project to Lifespan, a healthcare company in Rhode Island, later this year.
“Professor Morse has been such a strong supporter of this project,” said Dougherty. “He takes notes and observes at the hospital, finds great sources for us to speak with and has served as a mentor.”
Five years since his own hospital stay, Morse’s speech has improved thanks to two years of therapy and fortunately, the stroke didn’t affect his mobility. Still, he remembers his experience vividly and is excited to see his students creating an app that would prevent others from going through what he had to.
“I am pleased beyond belief with the work these alumni are doing,” he said. “This app would have been superbly helpful if it existed when I was in the hospital.”
Right now, the application is being used at Massachusetts General Hospital and specifically, in their Respiratory Acute Care Unit where patients are sometimes unable to speak.
“Eventually we would like to test this out in other hospitals, too, but we think proving its effectiveness at MGH holds a lot of weight,” said Zoeller.
“Nurses and patients have really been our greatest advocates so far,” added Dougherty. “It helps us to know that what we’ve designed is really meaningful.”
Since graduating, Dougherty, Hsiao and Zoeller have worked to design a product that reflects what hospitals really need and are building upon the customizability of their app. Patients can now write specific requests while nurses can add new input fields. The app also has the ability to prioritize the requests of patients based upon their needs and urgency.
“We’ve been able to use much of this feedback to really refine the user experience,” said Hsiao.
Eventually, the alumni would like to see their app used not only in hospitals but also in homes and senior centers.
“Our ultimate goal is to improve patient care,” said Dougherty. “By improving nurse efficiency and cutting back on hospital costs, we hope our app can provide the means to do just that.”
Based on the positive responses so far from patients, nurses, doctors, administrators, and even a U.S. senator, it looks like Verbal is headed in the right direction.
-Rachel Harrington (firstname.lastname@example.org)