UW-Milwaukee, Medical College Continue Healthcare App-Making Program

More than a year ago, Milwaukee-area trauma surgeon Jeremy Juern had an idea for a mobile app.

He and some colleagues at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) had published research on the analysis of acid levels in the blood and had come up with some equations to help interpret the readings. Not enough base (or too much acid) in bodily fluids can be caused by a variety of issues, including injuries from a car crash, for example. In those high-pressure situations, doctors and nurses need to keep an eye on the blood’s pH level because it’s an indicator of the patient’s condition. If the pH drops too low, “you’ll die because the body can’t function that way,” Juern says.

He was running some of those calculations in an Excel spreadsheet and soon realized it would be much easier if he had a mobile app to do that. But Juern, an assistant professor of surgery at MCW, didn’t have the technical know-how to develop software. He says the idea probably would’ve died right there if it weren’t for a program launched last year in which University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) computer science and design undergrads develop mobile apps based on ideas from MCW faculty and staff.

The idea from Juern and his colleagues was one of six apps chosen to be developed by students in UWM’s “App Brewery” after a pitch contest last spring. Now, five of those projects (one was put on hold) are poised for completion by the end of the spring semester, MCW officials say. The apps—which also include one that provides a searchable database of open clinical trials and a simple checklist for determining patient eligibility for specific trials—will likely be used by MCW doctors, researchers, and staff, and will also be available for download on the iOS and Android app stores.

“I never would have been able to do this without them,” Juern says of the partnership with UWM.

He is one example of how the mobile app initiative is encouraging entrepreneurship among people who might not otherwise go that route. “This does allow you to think in an entrepreneurial way,” Juern says. “But it’s also a very safe and organized setting where we’re not putting ourselves out financially.”

MCW faculty and staff submitted 86 app proposals for the inaugural pitch competition, and 52 were submitted for this year’s contest, which takes place Wednesday on MCW’s campus. Nine apps will be presented, including one to help track concussion symptoms and another to aid in pain management. The App Brewery will then develop the three winning pitches, says Joseph Kerschner, MCW executive vice president and dean.

Both schools have been pushing entrepreneurship in recent years. MCW created a director of research commercialization position last year, for example, while UWM launched a student startup contest a few years ago.

The mobile app partnership is an opportunity for MCW to harness the “creative energy” of its faculty and staff, Kerschner says. “I think providing them with an outlet for creativity and innovation and progress is really critical.”

For UWM, it gives students the chance to build their resumes and make products that get used outside the classroom, says App Brewery project manager Dustin Hahn.

MCW and UWM are in the process of developing marketing plans and setting prices for selling the apps to the public, MCW spokesman Richard Katschke says.

Neither side is expecting the apps to ascend the lists of top downloads on the app stores, but that’s not the point, Kerschner says. “The goal is not really for us to make a ton of money at it,” he says. “What we’re really trying to do is change the way things are done in research, education, and healthcare. If we end up making a little bit of money on it, that’d be great. We’re not quite there yet.”

The program went through a few growing pains in its first year.

It took longer to develop the apps than originally anticipated, Hahn says. That’s partly because the App Brewery also works on projects for other groups, such as the local tourism agency and nonprofits. Plus, the students’ backgrounds are mainly in software programming, not healthcare, so there was a bit of a learning curve. And the students wanted the finished products to be things they’re proud of, Hahn adds. “They wouldn’t just necessarily let something go as a prototype.”

Organizers also chose to pare down the number of finalists that will compete in this year’s pitch contest, and they cut in half the number of apps that will actually be developed.

“There’s always some bumps in the road,” Kerschner says. “We’re trying to really make sure we direct enough resources to get everything to the finish line.”

Juern, the trauma surgeon, says the experience was valuable, and he now realizes the difficulty of building an app that works so seamlessly “you don’t even think about it.” “You do gain a lot of respect for the development of an app,” he says.

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