Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has established the Healthcare Delivery Institute (HDI) with a plan to bring together engineering, science, and business to help solve the problem of delivering high quality healthcare for an aging population. It has approximately $4 million in current funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Veteran Administration’s New England Healthcare System.

HDI’s areas of expertise include developing mobile and wireless smart applications to support patient care, studying the adoption and impact of health IT systems, modeling and redesigning the way healthcare is delivered, and mining digital data to identify opportunities to improve patient care or clinical operations.

“The new model for healthcare delivery is not confined within the walls of a hospital or a doctor’s office. Our work focuses on what this new healthcare system needs to look like in the future, and what tools, technologies, and processes will be required to support it,”

said HDI’s faculty director Sharon Johnson.

HDI will partner with the University of Massachusetts Medical School diabetes and wound care specialists on a four year collaboration funded by a $1.2 million grant from NSF to develop a smartphone application to help people with advanced diabetes and foot ulcers better manage their disease.

Left untreated, foot ulcers can develop into serious infections and lead to amputation. According to the American Diabetes Association, some 70,000 people with diabetes have lower-limb amputations each year, accounting for more than 60-percent of all non-traumatic lower-limb amputations in the US. Currently, treating chronic foot ulcers is a significant challenge because walking on ulcerated feet causes further trauma.

The application under development at HDI, known as “sugar”, would give patients more control over their condition by allowing them, or someone else in their home, to photograph the ulcers on a regular basis and then use embedded tools in the app to monitor the ulcer’s status.

It will also be integrated wirelessly with a personal glucose meter and scale, allowing the app to track and archive blood sugar, as well as prompt patients with specific messages based on their weight and blood sugar readings over time.

The HDI team will work closely with four colleagues at UMass Medical School: David Harlan, MD, professor of medicine and pediatrics and Co-Director of the the Diabetes Center of Excellence at UMass Memorial Medical Center; Raymond Dunn, MD, professor of surgery and chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery at the medical center; Ronald Ignotz, PhD, adjunct professor of cell biology and research scientist in the Department of Surgery; and Sherry Pagoto, PhD, associate professor of medicine and a licensed clinical psychologist at the UMass Memorial Weight Center.

“Many with diabetes will tell you that managing their illness is like a second and demanding full time job. And that is especially true if complications, like foot ulcers, arise,” Dr. Harlan said. “All our clinical care delivery efforts are designed to support the patient so that much of their care can be delivered in the patient’s home, when it is convenient for them with their busy lives. Until we can eliminate any of our patients from suffering wound ulcers, which is our ultimate goal, we’re terrifically excited by the work we’re doing with the WPI team to facilitate proper wound care and thereby avoid amputations.”

The first two years of the project are slated for technology research and development, leading to a prototype for refinement. If the development phase proceeds as planned, the second two years of the project will test the new application in a clinical trial at UMass Medical School.