Imagine not having access to the Internet, a cellphone or even a place to call home. Not having access to these basics can deprive a person of social interaction, education, health care and so much more. As of 2014, this was the reality for nearly 600,000 people across the nation, with over 13,000 people in Utah. A team of University of Utah undergraduates and alumni are working to create a low-cost electronic device for the homeless population who lack such basics so that they can receive reminders for doctors’ appointments.
Often lacking a fixed address and means of reliable communication with their health care providers, the homeless population cannot receive reminders for their appointments the traditional ways—phone call, email or text message. This lack of technology often leads to missed appointments.
Hannah Hendrickson, a junior majoring in Health, Society and Policy, first got the idea to work on creating a device to address the problem when her professor and U Director of Capstone Initiatives Stephen Goldsmith mentioned the need for one in her Honors Praxis Lab.
Fueled by her personal experience as a volunteer at the Fourth Street Clinic for Connect2Health, a non-profit that relies on student volunteers to refer underserved patients to health-related community resources, Hendrickson seized the opportunity and volunteered to start the project last fall. She soon partnered with Sam Vincent a nurse practitioner at the Fourth Street Clinic and a Doctor of Nursing Practice candidate at the U.
“The number one cause of homeless deaths is treatable illnesses, which really got me thinking about how many of those deaths we can eliminate if those treatable illnesses were addressed,” said Hendrickson.
“The homeless population arguably has the most problems out of any other population; they don’t have shelter, have a slew of health problems and have unique barriers in attaining access to health care, such as not being able to receive appointment reminders. They’re the most vulnerable population and also the least visible.”
The team quickly grew when Rachel Anderson and current business major Stephanie Martin jumped on board. Goldsmith, Vincent and Stacy Bamberg, a former U engineering professor, agreed to advise the team.
Anderson, who recently graduated from the U this past May with a bachelor’s degree in communication and a minor in peace and conflict studies, said “Hannah approached me about getting involved with the project and I was immediately interested. One of my passions is humanitarian work, so being a part of a project that will benefit the greater good was a big draw.”
Though the team is currently fine-tuning the prototype, the electronic device will, in essence, be similar to the buzzers patrons receive at restaurants while on the wait list. Clinics will provide patients with the device and program them to buzz and remind patients of their appointments one day before, the morning of and one hour before their next appointment.
The device, due to its small size, limited use of materials and limited functionality, will come at a very low cost to clinics.
Due to the high level of promise the project holds, the team has received $13,000 of funding from the University’s Office of Sponsored Research and $1,000 from the Ivory Homes Capstone Initiative. Hendrickson also receives funding from the Office of Undergraduate Research’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program.
To better understand the financial and health impacts of missed health care appointments, Hendrickson spent this past summer conducting a national survey with homeless medical providers to gather data on no show rates of homeless patients and how much money, on average, an organization loses annually due to missed appointments.
“It was pretty shocking to me to hear how much of a problem missed appointments were. It’s motivating to find that most clinics recognize the problem but dont know what to do about it. I think our device has the capacity to change the entire homeless health care system,” said Hendrickson.
Though the data is preliminary, Hendrickson says the majority of respondents have estimated that $50,000-$100,000 is lost each year. Out of over 400 surveys distributed, Hendrickson has received roughly 50 responses, including one from the director of the Boston Homeless Clinic, and hopes to continue collecting data into the fall semester.
Sometime in the late fall, the team hopes to launch a two month trial with 50 devices to determine their efficacy in reducing missed appointments at Fourth Street Clinic. At the completion of the trial, the team will collect rates of missed appointments from clinic administrators and survey patients to determine how the device can be improved.
Though the team hopes to launch a startup company, they’re mainly in it for the learning opportunities and the chance to make a tangible difference by improving health outcomes of those in need.
“I’ve run into a few people who are skeptical of the project because they think I’m just an undergraduate with big dreams of trying to solve a complex, longstanding problem on my own,” said Hendrickson.
“I just want to do my best and help improve the system. That’s all any of us can really do, right?”