NY State Puts Focus on Health Apps

Below is the fifth in a series of guest posts from Nirav R. Shah, MD, MPH, the commissioner of health for the state of New York. Look for more of his blogs in the Intel Health & Life Sciences Community in the coming months.

You’re heading to the couch for a post-dinner nap when you get a text message asking if you’ve taken a walk today. You bypass the couch, lace up your sneakers and hit the nearby park for a 15-minute walk. 

For someone at risk for diabetes, that simple walk could be a lifesaver – and the key to preventing diabetes. A little exercise after a meal is often all it takes to usher glucose out of the bloodstream and into your cells, where it’s used up for energy. And the text reminder to take that walk? That could be just one of many new high-tech ways to prevent diabetes, perhaps even “prescribed” for you by your doctor and paid for by your health insurance.

The text app was the winning concept at New York State’s first-ever Health Data Code-a-thon, a 24-hour coding event staged by the New York State Department of Health at the EMPAC Theater on the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute campus on Troy, N.Y. in December. The event was funded by a grant from the New York State Health Foundation, with additional support provided by Socrata.

Participants were invited to use health data to create applications that can help stem the state’s two biggest health challenges: diabetes and obesity. The code-a-thon was part of a larger event called NY Innovates, which brought together health and technology stakeholders for collaborations and conversations about software development tools and techniques.

The easy-to-use texting app, which was called Vera, won its creators -- Raymond Jacobson, Olufemi King and Ethan Bond -- the top prize of $6,000. Vera asks you to enter your age, height and weight, and then lets you know if you’re at risk for diabetes. If you are, you’ll receive text reminders to make smart food choices, exercise regularly and manage your blood glucose.

Second prize went to ActiveSideKicks, a mobile app that allows users to join groups anonymously or with friends and family, to track exercise and health stats with the support of group members. Third place was awarded to DOEFANI (Diabetes and Obesity Education using Franchise and Nutrition Information), a web app that helps users find restaurants in their area while providing nutritional information about the foods there and restaurant health inspection data.

The Code-a-thon is only the beginning. All three teams will have the chance to participate in the New York State Health Innovation Challenge in 2014. With any luck, these tools will be brought to market.

But for now, we’ve had the chance to see what can happen when tech savvy coders get their hands on health data. The possibilities are in a word, endless.

What questions do you have about health apps?