There's an app for that

Student organization at Rollins out in front on mHealth

By Martha McKenzie | Emory Rollins | April 21, 2017

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When Nishant Kishore came to Rollins School of Public Health in 2014 to pursue an MPH, word got around that he knew how to develop mHealth platforms and applications, a skill that— judging from the response it received — is akin to being able to accurately predict the stock market. Classmates approached him to ask for tutorials, and he began meeting with small groups of interested students to share some tips and tricks on using mobile devices to support public health.

Kishore quickly realized the appetite for this knowledge was ravenous, so he and then-second year MPH student Roxanne Moore founded a new student organization, the Rollins mHealth Collaboration (RmC). The goal was twofold—to train students how to build mHealth systems in their first year and to line the students up with internships or job opportunities in their second year.

"This is a big up-and-coming field. There are a lot of organizations around the world looking for these sorts of skills, but I don't know of a good training protocol anywhere," says Kishore, who is now a data manager for the Malaria Zero project at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the owner of his own mHealth consulting firm, EpiTech. "The training that is available focuses on when it's appropriate to use mHealth and how to implement an existing program in the field. The mHealth Collaboration is the only group I know of that is specifically training people how to build these platforms."

Every other week for two-hour sessions, Kishore met with fellow students in a first-floor classroom. Following a curriculum of his own design, he taught them how to build and use a wide variety of mHealth platforms. He also showed them how to connect to the local SMS (short message service) gateway provider, what costs are incurred, and how to devise the user interface. Most sessions required some prep work, and each featured a lecture, a demonstration, and then hands-on practice. It was a demanding curriculum, but the students were eager to take it on.

"It's basically like taking another class but for no credit," says Kyndall White 17MPH, who replaced Kishore as president of RmC following his graduation. "It's a lot to take on in addition to your regular classes, but it gives you very marketable skills."

That marketability attracted students from all Rollins departments. "It was cool to see how these mHealth skills can be useful in different contexts," says White. "A BSHE student might want a text message reminder to reinforce a behavior. A health policy student might use it to track people's opinions of a particular policy."

Another facet of the mHealth Collaboration—and the reason it was dubbed "collaboration" instead of "club"—is that its members will take consulting jobs from alumni, professors, and organizations. It's a win-win, giving students hands-on experience and researchers much-needed assistance.

Oswaldo Henriquez, a physician at Grady Memorial Hospital, reached out to the student organization when he wanted a mobile app to help low-resource cancer patients access the care they need. The mHealth team is creating a text message system that Henriquez will be able to use to remind patients of the various appointments they have. Patients will have to respond to each reminder with a "yes" or "no," which could help reduce the number of no-shows. And Henriquez will be able to stay in touch with his patients, even if they move without telling his office, as they often do.

"A lot of our patients at Grady are marginalized, and it's easy for them to miss appointments and fall off our radar," says Henriquez. "They may show up again months later and the cancer has progressed. This message system will help keep them in the system so they get the care they need."

Mark Fajans 16MPH landed a summer practicum with Family Health International 360 in Myanmar thanks to the mHealth experience he gained through RmC. The organization was using a mobile application to track people with drug-resistant TB, but the app could be used only to collect the data and store it to be analyzed at the end of the trial. The lag time meant that some participants might die before researchers could get the results. So Fajans built a dashboard that enabled the data to be analyzed in real time, allowing researchers in the field to make immediate changes to treatment, if necessary.

"I know the experience I got in the mHealth Collaboration is what got me this practicum," says Fajans, who now works in the CDC's global HIV and TB division. "It was totally new to me when I started, but it was surprisingly easy to pick up and learn to use."

Nishant Kishore taught fellow students Kyndall White 17MPH, right, and Katherine Stanfill 16MPH, middle, how to build mHealth platforms through Rollins mHealth Collaboration.
Nishant Kishore taught fellow students Kyndall White 17MPH, right, and Katherine Stanfill 16MPH, middle, how to build mHealth platforms through Rollins mHealth Collaboration.

That's exactly the secret Kishore has been trying to share with students. "The science of mHealth has been seen as prohibitively technical for so long that people were afraid of it," he says. "One purpose of RmC is to show that it's not that way anymore. Give me an hour, and I can teach you how to build a platform."

In fact, Kishore taught himself to build and use mHealth platforms while a Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua from 2011 to 2014. By trial and error, he designed and implemented Chat Salud, a mobile health application to provide education on topics such as safer sex practices, HIV intervention, and domestic violence. After the Peace Corps, he worked for a nonprofit in Mexico developing mobile health systems for maternal health, again figuring it out as he went. So by the time he came to Rollins, Kishore had about three years' experience in building mHealth platforms.

He was so instrumental in building, running, and teaching in the collaboration, it would be easy to assume the organization would wither and die after his graduation. Easy but wrong. Kishore spent last year grooming five students to take over the collaboration. They plan not only to carry on what he started, but to improve on it.

"We plan to have a hack-a-thon using TeleRivit, a text messaging system, in the fall and a case competition in the spring," says White. "We're also adding two supplemental sessions for second-year students—one on how data is stored using the Cloud or a server and one on how to talk to product managers about incorporating mHealth in their projects. And for students who attend all of the sessions, we are going to award a certificate saying they are mobile health specialists."

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