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CrashHelp is on the Way

Abdullah Murad and Yousef Abed

Some students gauge the success of their research by how many papers they publish. But while School of Information Systems and Technology students Yousef Abed and Abdullah Murad are generating plenty of publishing credits for their work on CrashHelp, they are far more interested in how many lives they save.

To understand CrashHelp, you first need to understand the common communication breakdowns between paramedics and emergency rooms in the United States. When paramedics arrive at the scene of an accident, they care for the patient and transport them to the emergency room. When the paramedics deliver that patient they should also provide a description of the accident scene and what, if any, medical treatment has already been administered.

Critical as that information is, research has shown that it is transferred effectively only 50 percent of the time. This isn’t because paramedics or nurses are incompetent. Emergency rooms are fast-paced environments where medical staff may be taking care of other patients when the paramedics arrive. And these paramedics often do not have the time to wait if they are needed to respond to another 911 call. Additionally, much of the communication between ambulances and emergency rooms is still done by radio. While paramedics might debrief a nurse on their ride in, by the time they arrive, that nurse might be off doing something else, and there is rarely a permanent record left of their conversation.

These were the findings initially identified by SISAT alum Ben Schooley while doing research for his dissertation, a project funded by the National Science Foundation under the direction of SISAT Dean Tom Horan. After graduating in 2007, Schooley returned to CGU as a research faculty member and started working on prototypes for filling the communication gaps he had discovered.

“I began working with our students and started speaking with hospitals and paramedics. I wanted to get an idea of what a system would look like that could solve this problem of physicians treating patients without enough information,” he said.

Out of these conversations, Schooley, Horan, and students— including Abed, Murad, and fellow PhD student Joe Roberts—developed CrashHelp, a multimedia communications system for smartphones. With CrashHelp installed on a smartphone, emergency responders could take photos and videos of the patient and the scene and instantly send these to the hospital. This will allow emergency departments to better prepare for incoming patients, including allocating medical equipment or calling in needed specialists.

Also included on CrashHelp is a digital audio recorder for the paramedics’ conversations with staff from the receiving hospital. These conversations are catalogued in the emergency room’s computer and can be replayed for doctors or other nursing staff.

CrashHelp infographic

When Abed and Murad came to CGU as doctoral students in 2008, CrashHelp was still in its infancy, though it didn’t take much convincing to get the students to join the project.

“Ben talked to me about his idea and right away I got excited,” said Abed, who came to CGU with Murad from Saudi Arabia, where the two had met as undergraduates and have worked together ever since. “Initially my role was to build the technical artifact, but over time we’ve gotten involved in different activities.”

“Though the project started with my dissertation, these guys are bringing me great ideas I never would have thought of,” said Schooley. “They’re designers, builders, pilot testers, and interacting with the practitioners to improve CrashHelp.”

That interaction with practitioners occurred over a threemonth period in a pilot phase funded by the US Department of Transportation. Six hospitals in the Boise area participated. A cell phone with CrashHelp was provided for 20 ambulances, with each shift of paramedics logging in with their own user name and password. In those three months, CrashHelp was used by over 80 paramedics in more than 750 incidents.

For programmers who had previously been disconnected from the end-user experience, seeing their creation in use was a revelation for Abed and Murad.

“Most of the projects we’ve done were just about building technology, not understanding how that technology was used by people, or how it would impact day-to-day tasks,” said Abed.

“In SISAT, it’s different. You have to study the context— and that means seeing the consumers and interacting with them,” added Murad. “That’s what was so great about going to Idaho. I can see the results of my work. I can see people using the system that I created to save lives.”

While it is difficult to tie the use of CrashHelp directly to patient results, feedback received through interviews and focus groups show that the pilot phase was a clear success. Practitioners found it useful for making decisions about patient care, and Abed and Murad received valuable insight on which CrashHelp features were most utilized and which technical details were inhibiting functionality.

“We didn’t want to create something that looked great on paper, but then was never used,” said Murad. “One of the things we discovered was that the buttons were too small for some users. That’s a critical detail, but not the kind of thing you think about when you are doing your initial designs.”

In 2012, Abed and Murad will be going back to Idaho for six more months of pilot testing the newest version of CrashHelp, revamped through feedback from their previous visit. This pilot phase will expand usage from six to eight hospitals, and for the first time will include rural locations. Another pilot phase in Minnesota has also been funded for later in 2012.

Additionally, both students are drawing inspiration for their dissertations from their CrashHelp work.

Abed has become intrigued by the use of multimedia in emergency situations; in particular, he is interested in quantifying what audio and visual information is most important to medical practitioners. Murad is looking into what other applications can be added to mobile devices to improve the performance of paramedics, both in emergency and non-emergency situations. This includes apps that can reduce paperwork and provide educational tools.

With any luck, Abed and Murad will enlist students as talented as themselves to work on these projects. But in the meantime, they are going to stay busy testing and refining CrashHelp, and maybe save some lives in the process.

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