Northeastern Class Asks Students to Invent New Healthcare Tools

The class uses technology such as Google Glass to solve current healthcare problems.

Google Glass

Hattanas Kumchai /” target=”_blank”>Google Glass photo via Hattanas Kumchai/

In a class offered at Northeastern University this fall, the required materials go far beyond textbooks: Students are tasked with using cutting-edge technologies such as Google Glass and smart watches to improve healthcare.

The class, offered through Northeastern’s Personal Health Informatics program, is open to undergraduate, graduate, and Ph.D. students from a variety of disciplines. Students are put in teams based on their skills and backgrounds, and then are set loose to use the tools to create a prototype that could be used to solve current healthcare problems. Then, in a class offered the following semester, other students will test those prototypes to bring the ideas one step closer to market.

Stephen Intille, a professor of health and computer sciences at Northeastern and the instructor, says that the goal of the course is to push the envelope. “We’re trying to come up with a really novel idea for personal health informatics using a novel technology and trying to implement a prototype for that,” he says. “It’s not that we’re saying Google Glass is the future necessarily, it’s that you’re really pushing yourself to come up with new ideas in a new way by focusing on the use of a new technology.”

Intille says that students are encouraged to create products specifically catered to individuals—not healthcare providers or hospitals—to fill what he sees as a current gap in the industry. “If you go into the hospital, pretty much the only technology in the hospital room that’s for the patient is the television, and maybe the call button,” he says. “Almost everything else has been designed for the staff who are in the hospital, and that’s something that faculty who are in the Personal Health Informatics program think is going to change in the future.”

The project is still in the early stages of development, but Intille says a similar class offered last year yielded results such as a Google Glass-based app that guides autistic users through day-to-day tasks, a hands-free medical checklist system for doctors, and more.

And although college students inventing for course credit is not the typical model of healthcare research, Intille says that’s part of the course’s allure. In addition to providing a truly hands-on learning experience for the students, Intille says it’s beneficial for healthcare as well. “In a class like this, you can spend a semester brainstorming and being creative and taking a risk on an idea and trying to prove that it’s a good idea, and sometimes in industry that’s hard to do,” Intille says. “We try to encourage teams to think big and to not get into the rut that you often see in healthcare, which is people who have been in healthcare for a long time will say, ‘There’s no way we can do that.'”