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By Connecting Patients with Tech Talent, Alzheimer’s Association Inspires New mHealth Tool

It’s common for charity events to mobilize support through 5K walks, cycling races or other fitness-related efforts, but a recent initiative by the Alzheimer’s Association, Massachusetts-New Hampshire Chapter asked participants to exercise their intellectual talents rather than their physical abilities.

Although the #ENDALZ Hackathon marked the chapter’s first foray into orchestrating a tech brainstorming session, it yielded a promising smartphone tool set to hit the market early next year.

The event took place last July in coordination with The Longest Day, the association’s annual initiative challenging participants to fight Alzheimer’s from sunrise to sunset. “With The Longest Day people are able to run with whatever their talents and interests are,” said Jason Lynch, a development officer who organized the event. “This was an opportunity to engage the tech community on their own terms so they get a lot of value.”

Seven interdisciplinary teams took part in the day-long hackathon sponsored by Cengage Learning and Lyon-Waugh Auto Group. Alzheimer’s patients and their families were on hand to offer the designers, developers and engineers unfiltered, real-time constructive criticism.

“The challenge for the participants was less [about] building a solution and more about the user experience…figuring out something that is actually going to be usable,” said Lynch.

The decision to include people living with the neurological condition in the process was a conscious effort to empower patients.

“People with Alzheimer’s have trouble with communication and memory, all these things that make them hard to feel like they’re being productive,” said Lynch. “Unfortunately, it’s a unique thing that they’re the star of the show.”

Hunter Creative Labs, the Greater Boston-based startup product development company who won the competition, found the patients’ presence indispensable in the development of their app.

“All we did was listen, ask questions. Our first six ideas were thrown out based on their feedback,” said Rebecca Devaney, COO at Hunter Creative Labs, who led the team. “Ninety percent of it was created by the patients themselves. I can’t give them enough credit.”

The smartphone app, CarePal, synchronizes audio and video cues as well as checklists with a calendar. By helping users establish and trigger daily routines—like taking medication or calling a friend—CarePal facilitates compliance and independence. Information can be shared with and customized by caretakers and medical staff, a feature that could prove useful in easing transitions between caregivers or facilities.

“The future of medicine is patient-centered,” said Devaney. “With CarePal, the patient becomes the partner.”

Hunter Creative Labs intends to continue working with patients, care teams and the Alzheimer’s Association as it explores CarePal’s possibilities for further user individualization and possibly even therapy. “We want to develop smartly,” said Devaney.

The company now hopes to secure $350,000 in an initial seed round by January 2016 and to have its product ready for market the following spring.

According to Lynch, the hackathon will again take place next year. “It was a tremendous success for us,” he said. “This way people go after what the world needs and do what makes them come alive, whether that’s coding or building apps.”

Paula Sokolska

Paula Sokolska

    Paula is a freelance science writer and strategic communications associate at Health Leads. Formerly a managing editor at MedTech Boston, she has a B.S. in Journalism from Boston University and has worked with the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, Boston Globe, Social Documentary Network, BU Today and several nonprofit organizations. She can be reached at paula.sokolska@gmail.com.

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