Stanford Biodesign Team Creates App To Help Caregivers Meet The Challenges Of Dementia

contributors to the Formative projectBiodesign for Mobile Health course instructor Marta Zanchi (far left) with Mersina Simanski (center), Tyler Haydell (second from right), and other contributors to the Formative project.

Biodesign for Mobile Health (mHealth) is an experiential, multidisciplinary course that explores the emerging mobile health field. The class focuses on addressing health-related needs that typically exist outside traditional care venues, such as a patient’s home, where mobile solutions can have meaningful impact on improving health and promoting wellness.

Each year, the course requires students to form teams and work together on projects to identify and address this type of unmet healthcare need. Last fall, Tyler Haydell, a senior in mechanical engineering, teamed up with electrical engineering senior Mersina Simanski to tackle their course project. “We asked ourselves, what is the greatest opportunity for mobile health technology to make a difference in healthcare, and what disease area does that best align with? We came up with dementia, because while there are no technological solutions, it was an area where technology could be applied to make a difference,” Haydell recalls.

Through online and user research conducted during the class, the pair learned about the struggles faced by dementia caregivers, most of whom are family members with little or no formal training. The challenge to keep loved ones with dementia engaged, combined with the demanding and unpredictable nature of the condition, can be so overwhelming that the caregiver’s physical health often suffers. “The online research gave us a high level, general understanding of the problems faced by dementia caregivers,” said Haydell. “Talking to people working in the field gave us the insights to move forward in a truly meaningful way.”

At the end of the quarter, the solution Haydell and Simanski had developed to meet the needs of dementia caregivers was awarded “best in class” by a panel of industry experts from the mobile health field. The award not only helped validate their project, but allowed Haydell and Simanski to continue working on the project through the Stanford Biodesign Immersion Program. Led by course instructor Marta Zanchi, this program provides students with ongoing resources and support to further develop their technologies beyond the end of the class

Users Insights + Expert Advice Results in an Innovative App

As Haydell and Simanski continued their research, their understanding of the caregiver experience deepened. “Even as the caregivers we interviewed identified common themes of frustration and annoyance, there were also these moments where each of them would describe an activity that brought back the person they had known before the dementia,” recalls Haydell. “Each caregiver had a different story—a best practice or strategy to share. And so our goal became to create a ‘go to’ playbook that would replicate a caregiver support group in terms of a sharing of knowledge.” The team also learned that that dementia was a “team sport,” and there was a need for an internal communications platform that would allow the entire care team to share information.

With coaching from Zanchi and access to connections in the Stanford Biodesign network, the team was able to meet and form close relationships with numerous high level advisors, including the director of the Dementia Center at the Palo Alto Veteran’s Hospital, and the director of Stanford Geriatric Education Center, as well as venture capital and other business professionals. “They were all excited and willing to help with everything, from the validation of the need to navigating the digital health business landscape,” says Haydell. “As students, you just can’t access that level of expertise—it’s not possible to just read about these topics and understand them to the same extent. If we had made a wish-list of people we wanted to talk to…well, we talked to them all.”

Moving Forward

After graduation, Haydell, Simanski, and two new teammates, Katie Redmond and Nikhil Parthasarathy, continued to press ahead. They founded a company called Formative and took office space at the Palo Alto VA Hospital’s Caregiver’s Technology Lab to develop a beta version of the app (now available on iTunes). At its core, the Formative technology enables better communication for families of people with dementia, allowing them to assemble a care team of family and professional care providers, work together more effectively, and support and encourage one another. It also provides assistance with understanding care issues, identifying and applying new care strategies, and recognizing and sharing what works well. Importantly, the app also supports family members in collecting and remembering moments of joy with their loved one.

At the end of the summer, Simanski accepted a position at the newly-opened Stanford Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center in order continue research intended to make the app even more robust. Haydell felt pulled towards private sector business and chose to leverage his mHealth experience as a data insights engineer at a healthcare technology company. “With just a traditional mechanical engineering background, I never would have been qualified for this position,” he says. “It was having the experience with Formative on my resume that made it possible.” All of the students remain committed to advancing the technology to help the caregivers of loved ones with dementia.