3 student-led research projects boost healthcare

26 October 2016
Big research ideas to transform Australian healthcare

Students pitch their big ideas that could transform Australian healthcare at the University of Sydney's inaugural Innovation Week.

Apps that gamify ‘active sitting’ at work, connect students with mental health services and analyse speech and text patterns to identify young people at risk of developing schizophrenia are the finalists in the research category of the University of Sydney’s inaugural Innovation Week Student Challenge.

Three teams will vie for $5,000 in funding to make their vision a reality in a final pitch on Wednesday  night. The finalists were selected from more than 70 entries, and are led by current students from multiple disciplines, including computer science, biomedical engineering, architecture, medicine and business.

The winner will also receive support and industry advice from Sydney student startup accelerator INCUBATE, the University’s office of Commercial Development and Industry Partnerships, and discipline relevant academics. 

As a judge I was impressed by the quality of the student applications.
Professor Stephanie Watson

Professor Stephanie Watson, who leads a research program in the Sydney Medical School focused on innovative solutions for ocular repair and regeneration, will help judge the Student Challenge.

“We’re looking for an outstanding idea, solution or innovation that will help make the future of healthcare more accessible, efficient and a better experience for patients and families,” she said.

“As the population ages and healthcare costs increase, innovation will provide solutions to both simple and complex health problems. Innovation starts with an idea. Fostering ideas, particularly of undergraduates who are immersed in a highly stimulating learning environment, can reap future rewards.

“As a judge I was impressed by the quality of the student applications. They were tuned into current and growing problems in the health system and focussed on improving patient and community health outcomes”

1. Gamifying active sitting at work

About the students:

Media strategist Queenie Ling has teamed up with electrical communications engineer Ahmad Mollahassani and interaction design Masters student Louis Chew to make moving at work fun.

About the pitch:

Studies have shown that those who sit for the longest periods of time are twice as likely to have diabetes or heart disease, compared to those who sit the least. In fact, the more hours you spend sitting in a day, the shorter your lifespan may be even if you exercise regularly.

Given 75 per cent of office hours are spent sitting, more needs to be done to get employees up and moving during the day, says Queenie.

“While sitting is often hailed as the new smoking, the solution is not as simple as standing more,” she said.

“The body requires a range of posture changes, including leg positioning, to stay healthy. This is called active sitting and it can help strengthen muscles, relieve joint and muscle pain and promote blood circulation.”

Enter ‘The FIN’, a deceptively simple digital game that you can ‘play’ in a team with colleagues during work time. Each player is fitted with a device that tracks movement. The premise is to, as a team, stop the shared timer counting down to zero by performing small movements – crossing the legs, twisting the back, stretching the neck – to build up bonus time.  

“While our research has primarily focused on open space offices, we see great potential for the FIN in promoting physical activities for inactive kids, students and facilitating collaborative gym classes and social workout gatherings,” Louis said.  

2. Using phone calls to identify schizophrenia early

About the students:

Machine learning PhD student Harrison Nguyen has partnered with Doctor of Medicine student Shanuka Samaranayake to create an app that analyses speech and text patterns to identify those at high risk of developing schizophrenia.

About the pitch:

The app records a person's speech and behaviour during their phone calls and text messages and uses an existing algorithm that picks up psychosis and pre-psychosis symptoms, (for example, quickly switching between topics), which can be a precursor to schizophrenia.

Shanuka says schizophrenia affects 15 in every 1000 people, with onset usually occurring between the ages of 15-30.

“In order to reduce the impact of schizophrenia, there is evidence to suggest early intervention and treatment could delay the onset of symptoms and potentially reduce the incidence of suicide.

“However, current diagnosis methods rely on subjective surveys and patient’s memories. We hope our solution will give clinicians objective data from daily monitoring that identifies not only those who should receive treatment, but where they are up to in the onset of the disease.”

The app would be distributed by specialists, GPs, schools and universities.

Machine learning expert Harrison says the project also aims to improve speech analysis mechanisms, so that this technology can be employed for other mental health conditions, where changes in speech may be an indicator for onset of disease. 

3. Streamlining mental health support

About the students:

Student mental health researchers Aran Kanagaratnam and Akhil Bansal, who are both in their third year of studying a combined Bachelor of Science (Advanced) and Doctor of Medicine, have developed a streamlined mental health platform that connects students to the right support for them, how and when they want it.

About the pitch:

The students are hoping the system, dubbed ‘One-Click Support’, will be piloted in the University’s centralised special considerations system, an online form which grants students extensions on their assignments if there are short term circumstances beyond their control, such as illness, injury and misadventure.

After completing their application, students are directed to One-Click Support’s compassionate and anonymous questionnaire, which asks about their mental wellbeing, before connecting them with geographically convenient, university affiliated healthcare services that are personalised to their needs.

Aran, who as the University of Sydney Union Charity Officer in 2015 worked with Headspace to raise awareness for mental health issues and organised events to improve student knowledge around mental wellbeing, said 80 per cent of tertiary students experience abnormal levels of psychological distress.

“In the first semester of 2016 alone, the University received more than 15,000 applications special consideration applications. It’s important these students are offered help in an easy-to-use way.” 

It is hoped the model could be used at other universities around Australia – for both staff and students.  

Check out the finalists for the Innovation Week Student Challenge start-up category.