UD students solve real-world healthcare challenges
A team of students at the University of Delaware has won $5,000 to take their innovation to the next level.
Riley Pettit, a junior cognitive science major on the speech-language pathology track, and her first-year teammates Sam Muza, a nursing major, and Jacquie Sherry, a biology major, won the grand prize in the First Step competition on April 25, which celebrated 10 years of recognizing student innovation.
This year, 10 teams of students were paired with a Delaware healthcare system, community organization or nonprofit. Together, through this extracurricular program, they identified a problem that the students would set out to solve.
Pettit’s team was paired with Easterseals Delaware and Maryland’s Eastern Shore, which determined that caregivers of people with physical and intellectual disabilities are experiencing burnout because they’re not getting the breaks from caregiving they so desperately need.
“There’s a huge shortage of respite care in Delaware, and it makes such a difference in a family’s life. It’s such an easy fix if we had a resource to get people to hear about it,” Pettit said.
Easterseals has had a respite grant program as part of its caregiver support program for a decade and offers $500 a year for families to use to take that much-needed break.
“Lots of families take advantage of that; we always fully obligate the funds that we have, but sometimes caregivers don’t use the funds that they’ve been awarded,” said Nancy Chipman Ranalli, director of community outreach and assistive technology for Easterseals.
Issues for not using that funding range from inability to schedule respite care to a lack of trust of outside providers. That spawned Ranalli to pull together a respite coalition that sought to determine a menu of opportunities that families would access and use.
“Respite was really new territory for me, and I think going to the coalition meetings and hearing about what their populations want and problems that they’re having — I’m young, I feel I can help,” Pettit said.
The team’s proposed solution to accessing respite is to create a respite registry, like Care.com but more specialized, that would connect family caregivers with trained respite care providers. The goal is for Easterseals to incorporate a training component and manage the registry once it’s established.
“The training would consist of basic respite, safety and ethics as well as a focus on how to deal with certain disabilities like Alzheimer’s and epilepsy,” Pettit said. “Respite providers could then go onto the registry or website and set up a profile and list their certifications and availability.”
Ranalli said the registry would be modeled after a similar program underway at Respite Care Association of Wisconsin.
“With Riley being at the University of Delaware, we can tap into some groups at UD that are already on this course of working with people with disabilities whether it’s from a therapy standpoint, nursing, other human services program — so this training will give them an opportunity to learn more about working with people with disabilities across the lifespan from kids with disabilities to seniors who might need support,” Ranalli said.
Each team created a poster showcasing their project and had 10 minutes to present a PowerPoint to the judges in the Audion at UD’s Science Technology and Advanced Research (STAR) Campus.
Freda Patterson, associate professor in the Department of Behavioral Health and Nutrition, was part of a trio of judges that included Sharon Dudley-Brown, associate professor in the School of Nursing, and Jocelyn Hafer, assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Applied Physiology. Patterson explained part of her judging criteria:
“I was examining — is it a true solution, and to what extent will it solve the problem?” Patterson said. “The second question is — is it feasible? Can they really do it with the available resources?”
Patterson said Team Easterseals’ solution checked all the boxes.
“It is a very real problem — caregivers not being able to get respite, and we know in general that caregivers have poorer health and health outcomes than non-caregivers, so nationally, this is a population of concern,” Patterson said. “Sometimes the more pragmatic simple solutions are the best. It seemed that the team was leveraging the resources available to them to come up with a solution, and they were building the capacity. The respite registry and the infrastructure could be there long after the student is gone — that was a key component for me.”
A second team of students, paired with Delaware Hospice, won $1,000 for coming up with the most innovative solution for the hospice’s Katybug Program, a pediatric care program that offers support to families and helps children facing a serious illness live life to the fullest.
Sophomore Alexis Nappa, junior Grace Inman and senior Madison Fox proposed using virtual reality technology to alleviate stress and help children receiving pediatric care better understand what they’re going through.
“The child can’t grasp why this is happening to them and what’s going on in their body. We really want the child to understand, in a kid-friendly way, what they’re going through and be able to meet other people with the same condition,” said Fox, a nutrition and dietetics major with a pre-physician assistant (PA) pathway. “It can also be a fun tool to play games.”
The VR goggles could also be used to help parents keep kids out of the hospital and better understand their child’s medication regimen, and in turn, relieve stress from hospice healthcare staff.
“We also want parents to be prepared for emergency situations so they’re more comfortable helping their children instead of freaking out and calling 911,” said Nappa, a medical diagnostics major with a pre-PA pathway.
Inman, who’s also a nutrition and dietetics major with a pre-PA pathway, called competing in First Step and winning the most innovative award, the first of many differences she hopes her team will make in the healthcare field.
“We’re all science majors hoping to go into the medical field, and just to have a win like this is huge for us,” Inman said. “To have that light looking forward, that this could be a great idea that changes the lives of so many people is awesome.”
Nicole Fuller, director of community engagement for Delaware Hospice, said the team of students was instantly drawn to the Katybug program.
“I was greatly impressed with their passion and innovative vision for helping our youngest patients,” Fuller said. “I’m looking forward to partnering with them and the University of Delaware as they take their virtual reality idea to the next level. Their inspiring solution is certain to make life easier for so many children in our community.”
Patterson called team Delaware Hospice’s idea a great way of leveraging existing technology to solve a problem.
“Their solution was so relevant and clearly designed with their target population in mind,” Patterson said. “It didn’t require additional time or resources from staff who are already pretty strapped, so it was a value-added solution.”
First Step was the vision of College of Health Sciences Dean Kathleen S. Matt, who, 10 years ago, wanted to create an interdisciplinary translational research experience for students. Over the years, she’s watched the program adapt and evolve. While Matt was impressed by all the First Step competitors, the two award-winning projects stand out.
“For a decade now, our energetic, creative and thoughtful students have taken real-world healthcare problems and devised innovative solutions that will truly make a difference in the lives of many Delawareans and beyond,” Matt said. “I look forward to seeing virtual reality utilized to improve quality of life for families and staff in pediatric hospice care. The creation of a respite care registry will bring value, increase trust, and provide crucial support for caregivers.”
For the last several years, First Step has been led by Martha Hall, director of innovation at CHS, who selected the healthcare organizations that are the beneficiaries of this year’s problem-solving competition. Hall said both Easterseals and Delaware Hospice and the greater community will benefit and see the impact of the students’ hard work.
“Through First Step, students get a taste of what it’s like to face a user-centered problem, identify pain points and barriers, and try to get at the root of the issue and come up with a solution that makes sense — not just an easy solution — but something that would work in the situation,” Hall said. “To be able to impact students in that way just grows this whole idea of patient-driven design and innovation in healthcare past the confines of the classroom and into the greater UD community and campus, and ultimately, our local and statewide communities.”
UD alumnus of the College of Arts and Sciences Peter Mercer, Class of 1963, who spent his professional career with GE and Honeywell International, where he was vice president of human resources, has been a generous supporter and mentor to competitors of First Step. As co-chair of the CHS Advisory Council, on which he’s served since 2014, Mercer would like to see First Step expand by providing additional interdisciplinary opportunities for students.
“I admire the work and appreciate the learning that goes on with these highly-motivated students who participate in First Step voluntarily,” Mercer said. “The quality of students’ work has been consistently strong over the years. I hope all the competing students have learned from this experience, are implementing valuable solutions, and see tangible signs of success and accomplishment.”
Ranalli, at Easterseals, said she never thought UD students would be the force behind her organization getting such a monumental project off the ground.
“Riley didn’t come from a background of knowing about caregiving, people with disabilities or respite. In such a short period of time, she really picked up what the need was and how we could resolve it. Her solution was right on target,” Ranalli said.
Easterseals will now seek out supplementary grant funding to ensure the respite registry becomes a reality by this time next year.
“I hope that the registry is really strong and robust with lots of volunteers, and that lots of families tap into it to really get the help and support that they need,” Ranalli said. “Having something ready to go as Riley graduates, for her to say — 'I did this. I started this.’ — that would be really cool.”