Gamified Digital Health App For Cystic Fibrosis Patients Wins Students Young Innovator Of the Year Award

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Three students from the University of Queensland have taken top honors in Australia’s annual innovation contest, the iAwards. The team submitted an app designed to make respiratory therapy fun for pediatric patients fighting cystic fibrosis. Their entry took two prizes in the competition, the Young Innovator Of the Year, which earned them a $10,000 prize, and the Best Mobile Application award, which came with an additional $5,000 prize.

Cystic fibrosis is a hereditary disease that causes a thick mucus buildup to collect in the lungs and digestive system. The mucus overwhelms the organs, causing patients to suffer chronic respiratory infections and ultimately leads to death. While improvements in treatment have led to a longer average lifespan for cystic fibrosis patients, the average patient still only lives to the age of 37.

A key component of cystic fibrosis treatment is daily breathing exercises, called chest physiotherapy. The treatment is needed to help remove mucus and sustain lung function, however, cystic fibrosis patients routinely rank it as both their least preferred form of treatment, and the one they were most likely to skip.

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To address this problem, Elliot Smith, Gavin Kremor, and Jeremy Herbert have designed a smartphone game called Pepster. In the game, which was designed to be similar to the popular smartphone game Flappy Bird, users control a bird whose objective is to fly through clouds and collect points. The birds flight path is controlled by breathing into a digitally connected face mask, making the act of breathing the actual game controller. Another game that also uses the controller allows users to pilot a spaceship, with similar objectives. The games were designed to engage pediatric patients between the age of four and 14, and more than anything, to improve adherence to treatment plans by making physiotherapy fun.

As the game is played, clinical information about the quality of breathing and duration of physiotherapy is captured and stored for long term trending. The information is also shared via a secure connection with the patient’s care team.

A clinical trial is underway in Australia where 30 patients are using the system to support their physiotherapy routines. Early results are largely positive, "From the parents, the feedback is that their children are genuinely enjoying the experience and it’s stopped being almost a chore," said Smith. Once clinical trials are complete, the team plans to apply for FDA and Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Association approval to bring the treatment to market for commercialization.


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