Teaching students to develop impactful apps

Four apps being developed under the Software Engineering Industry Experience Studio Project, a new unit offered in the Bachelor of Software Engineering (Honours),

Nik Nailah

Heart failure accounts for one in ten acute medical admissions in Malaysian hospitals. It is one of the most common reasons for hospital readmission cases. The problem lies in most heart failure patients being unable to recognise early warning symptoms of worsening heart condition, mainly if the symptoms are atypical. This is due to several reasons – limited communication with healthcare providers, lack of correct information, memory difficulty, complex medical regimen, and a lack of compelling symptoms. Heart failure patients in rural areas are also unable to access hospital-based services easily due to their remote location.

To enable the early prediction of worsening heart failure, Monash University Malaysia collaborated with several Malaysian Ministry of Health (MOH) hospitals to develop ReportCare, a heart failure patient management app for heart failure patients with implantable devices. The app uses a machine-learning algorithm - the science of getting computers to act without being explicitly programmed. It will be able to capture real-time data trends, analyse and communicate it directly to cardiac care clinics on time.

Users can access ReportCare without a mobile Internet connection. It allows patients, especially from rural areas, to report their health conditions using a virtual assistant and be alerted of early worsening status. This feature enables immediate intervention to take place remotely - before their next scheduled visit or to have a remote monitoring system installed in their homes.

Using technology to address gaps in healthcare

Digital health innovations like ReportCare are an example of how software engineering helps improve a person's quality of life. "In the future, software engineering will become more vital in the education and healthcare sectors. People have been talking about teleconsultation for many years but are only taking it seriously now because of the pandemic. Same goes for online learning. We are going to see a greater presence of software engineering in the market," says lecturer Dr Nik Nailah Abdullah from the School of Information Technology, Monash University Malaysia.

She added that Malaysia has tremendous untapped potential for healthcare technology as the market is still nascent compared to developed markets such as Singapore and Australia. ReportCare is one of the four apps being developed under the Software Engineering Industry Experience Studio Project, a new unit offered in the Bachelor of Software Engineering (Honours).

Currently in its first year, the digital health projects are in line with Monash University's 'Network for Equity through Digital Health' (NEED) interdisciplinary initiative. NEED aims to enhance access to high-quality healthcare and wellbeing in underserved communities through critical digital health research. President and Pro Vice-Chancellor of Monash University Malaysia, Professor Andrew Walker and Professor of Practice in Digital Health at Monash University in the Faculty of Information Technology, Professor Chris Bain are the co-founders of NEED.

Chemocare aims to help cancer patients with monitoring and reporting their chemotherapy side-effects so that they know when to see a clinician. Students routinely communicated with an oncologist from a private hospital who acted as an independent advisor and also interacted with cancer patients from public hospitals, as they worked on developing the app to ensure that the user interface would be relevant to their needs.

They also worked together with researchers from the Jeffrey Cheah School of Medicine and Health Sciences and the Malaysian Federation of the Deaf to create a mobile app, Deaf In Touch Everywhere (DITETM). DITETM provides deaf individuals with access to a Sign Language Interpreter by appointment or on-demand and have their health consultation translated via video conferencing.

Meanwhile, the TakeMe app connects older people who have low to moderate cognitive frailty with volunteers who can help transport them, thus improving their mobility. "This project is very much aligned with Monash's value of inclusivity as students must understand groups of people that they do not normally think about," said Nailah, who coordinates and manages the unit and some of the projects.

Gaining real-world experience

"Students liaised with real clients to develop something impactful – apps that met real needs. There is a mix of academic research and software development, so students were exposed to both the world of research and digital healthcare," said Nailah.

Digital healthcare may not be every student's cup of tea, but the project presents opportunities for them to discover their interests. "Students may not end up in the field of digital healthcare as a career, but they may discover that they want to go into entrepreneurship or pursue research instead. They discover many other career pathways," she said.

Communication and collaboration are some of the key skills that students learned via the project that will prove useful in their future. "Ultimately, students learn how important it is to engage with users and to understand what users want. They learn how to translate ideas into real-world applications with the tools they have and to put everything they know together to make something out of it," said Nailah.

For the project, students had access to Amazon Web Services (AWS), an on-demand cloud computing platform, which helped them to fast track their app development. According to Nailah, students were then able to focus on their proof of concept without getting caught up in building an app from scratch – which was the experience of their seniors. The students not only benefited from the exposure to industry-standard tools like AWS but were also able to learn from the company's experts, she added.

She explained that depending on the apps' technical difficulty, the development of longer-term apps would be continued by the next batch of students and interested clients, as certain apps required more investment and more rigorous clinical testing.

"We hope that with the beta version of the apps, we can secure more funding from interested clients for further testing and development," she said.

Stepping outside the box

As the project was collaborative, students benefited from the opportunity to learn from industry experts in software development and digital healthcare through online 'fireside chats' or informal sharing sessions, said Nailah.

Among the industry professionals featured in the fireside chats was American computer scientist William J. Clancey (Bill Clancey), who is a research scientist at the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Recognition (IHMC), USA and an advisor to the collaborating MOH's hospital  ReportCare app project. Clancey was formerly part of the MYCIN Project in Stanford University, an artificial intelligence (AI) program used to diagnose and recommend medical treatment, as well as the chief scientist of Human Centered Computing in the Intelligent Systems Division at NASA Ames, California (1998-2013)

"Students were not brave enough to step outside the box and would often question their capabilities. I wanted to encourage them to explore more as they were so used to only clearly defined problems. After a discussion with Bill, I noticed that they began to be more confident that new ideas were possible and doable. Some even told me they wanted to pursue research once the project is done," shared Nailah.

"I want my students to know that it's okay to fail because without trying, you will miss out on the process of learning new possibilities. Students can use this project as a place to prepare for the real world," she added.