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State, Anthem ask techies to solve infant mortality

July 15, 2013

The expectations were sky high Friday at the Hoosier Healthcare Innovation Challenge, where health care experts outlined problems they face to an auditorium full of information technology students and professionals.

The hope is for the tech developers to come up with software, mobile apps or other technical solutions, launching a successful business that helps improve health and save money in the process.

The first challenge came from Dr. Bill VanNess, Indiana’s Commissioner of Health, who asked for a smartphone app that the state could offer to pregnant moms to educate them about infant health and help them easily schedule appointments with health care providers.

The state, along with health insurer Anthem Blue Cross & Blue Shield and Indianapolis community health center Raphael Center, will work with teams of IT developers and entrepreneurs to develop and deploy a solution.

The goal is to reduce Indiana’s infant mortality rate from 7.7 per thousand births, which ranks the state No. 47. Any baby who dies before his or her first birthday is counted as an infant death.

In Marion County, the rate is 9.5 per thousand births, compared with a national rate of 6 per thousand.

“It’s a horrible problem that we really need to fix,” VanNess said, calling infant mortality the No. 1 indicator of the overall health status of any state or nation.

VanNess thinks technology is the answer because it has potential to reach more patients, more frequently, than doctors and nurses ever could.

“There are people who don’t have a home, don’t have a car, but they have a smartphone,” VanNess said. He added, “There’s going to be an opportunity, a huge opportunity, to communicate with patients away from the office.”

And VanNess, a family physician and former CEO of Community Hospital Anderson, thinks mobile apps could actually do a better job than doctors of educating patients—just because doctors have little to no time to spend on such issues. Pregnant moms need to take prenatal vitamins to avoid low-weight babies at birth, and they need education on how to feed, comfort and care for an infant after birth.

Using mobile apps to change patients behavior is health care providers' great hope. That’s because diseases caused mainly by patient behavior—such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease—account for the majority of health care spending nationwide.

“If this does work,” VanNess said of a mobile app for pregnant moms, “this could move to other opportunities to control chronic diseases.”

Teams of IT developers, some of which were already formed and some of which got together for the first time on Friday, have until July 31 to pitch their solutions.

Experts convened by Indianapolis economic development groups DevelopIndy and TechPoint, who organized the challenge, will pick winners and award them modest cash prizes to continue their work.

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