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Washington State University Health Sciences Spokane

New lab to test home health technologies, train tech-savvy nurses

A new Washington State University laboratory focused on home health technologies could potentially improve health outcomes and quality of life for adults with chronic conditions.

Led by nurse scientists, the Nurse Technology Enhanced Care at Home (NTECH) lab will test off-the-shelf health innovations and develop new technologies to manage chronic conditions at home. Down the line, it will also provide a training ground for aspiring nurse scientists looking to enter the health technology field.

Health technology can help patients monitor and manage their health inside the home, which not only keeps them safe but can also provide economic benefits. An estimated $1.1 trillion is spent in the U.S. each year to treat chronic diseases, with the costliest ones being congestive heart failure, chronic kidney disease, neurological disorders, and dementias. Examples of home health technologies that can help manage these conditions include smart technologies such as fall detection sensors, wearable devices that track vital signs, and chronic disease management mobile apps. Household innovations like peel-away disposable bed sheets and bidets also fall into that category.

Portrait photo of Shelly Fritz“Though we have organizations like Consumer Reports and AARP that test and evaluate products, there is currently no place you can go that provides information on health technologies from a nursing lens,” said Shelly Fritz, WSU associate professor of nursing and an expert in the use of smart technologies in healthcare delivery.

Fritz said the lab is accepting products for testing and plans to provide those that test well with a nursing seal of approval, something she said doesn’t yet exist in the U.S. Having that nurse’s perspective of a product’s utility and performance could help patients navigate the increasingly cluttered health technology landscape to find those innovations that best meet their needs, she added.

In addition to testing products, Fritz and her four lab co-founders—WSU nurse scientists Catherine Van Son, Connie Nguyen-Truong, Marian Wilson, and Julie Postma—will join forces to develop new technologies that fill innovation gaps in chronic disease management. Their efforts will draw from the team’s combined knowledge in fields such as smart home technologies, mobile health app development, chronic pain management, gerontology, and adoption of health technology in underrepresented communities. The team also plans to have researchers from other disciplines—such as computer science and engineering—contribute their expertise, though Fritz emphasized that the NTECH lab will be nurse-driven.

One final goal Fritz has is for the new lab is to provide training to nurses who want to enter the health technology field.

“We need more nurses at health technology design tables at companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft, and health technology startups so that nursing expertise is involved from the very envisioning of a product all the way through the end,” Fritz said. “If we can’t get them there, we will never change the scenario where products are developed that are not well translated for use at the bedside or in the home.”

Fritz said she has served as a consultant for more than a dozen health technology companies and startups and has had to decline additional requests due to time constraints. She has talked to company CEOs about the need to have in-house nursing expertise but has been told that people with the right skills and qualifications are hard to find.

Though this is still in the planning stages, Fritz hopes to develop a health technology elective track within WSU’s PhD in nursing program. PhD students in the new track would learn basic computer programming skills and other essential skills needed to communicate and work with the engineers and computer scientists in charge of designing and building health technology products. They would gain hands-on experience at the NTECH lab, as well as through a residency program Fritz is developing in partnership with health technology company leaders. Companies would have the option of hiring students at the end of that residency.

“My goal is to get nurses a seat at the table, which will ultimately impact how care can be delivered and improve patients’ health outcomes,” Fritz said.

–Story by Judith Van Dongen, WSU Health Sciences Spokane Office of Research

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