Nurses, pilots and veterans to benefit from new technologies

Researchers in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Texas A&M University are studying memory limitations in high-workload environments, weather alerts for general aviation pilots and remote health monitoring to save the lives of veterans. Dr. Farzan Sasangohar, Dr. Thomas Ferris and Dr. Mark Lawley are improving the lives of people around the world.

“Our work is focused on using emerging technologies to improve human welfare by making complex tasks and chronic diseases easier to manage in noisy, evolving environments,” said Lawley, interim department head of industrial and systems engineering.

Improving intensive care

Many people experience lapses in memory when the workload at the office becomes a bit heavier than usual. These lapses can be dangerous if the work involves time sensitive, safety-critical decision making. Sasangohar, assistant professor, is working to make hospitals safer by applying his expertise on human decision-making, interruptions and memory limitations to the demanding environment of intensive care.

Image of Farzan SasangoharAccording to the Patient Safety Movement, more than 200,000 deaths occur each year due to preventable causes under the care of a medical professional, costing $1.26 trillion per year to treat these medical errors. The mission of the Patient Safety Movement aligns with that of Sasangohar’s research: decrease mistakes made by medical professionals.

“Humans in high-workload environments are especially prone to memory limitations,” Sasangohar said. “My research investigates the design and evaluation of memory aid tools in safety-critical settings. This will help intensive care unit nurses manage their duties during high-workload or interruption episodes.”

He uses displays that provide smart checklists and visual timelines of important events to achieve reliable workload management and efficiency.

“Interactive graphical representations of events could also help personnel in safety-critical settings recover from interruptions in an efficient and effective manner,” he said.

Sasangohar was recently honored with a best paper award sponsored by Lockheed Martin from the Houston Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. The paper is titled “Systematic management of interruptions to nurses in an intensive care unit.”

Alerting general aviation pilots

General aviation includes all civil aviation, except passenger airline services. Often referred to as the ‘wild west’ by those in the aviation world, it has seen a number of pilots flying into dangerous weather, resulting in death. In 2015, 384 people lost their lives due to crashes while aboard general aviation aircraft, weather being the cause.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is investing in research to determine the cause of these decisions. Ferris, assistant professor, has joined the FAA’s efforts on this project.

“It’s some combination of did not receive the right weather information, did not receive it in time, received and did not believe it or the pilots were overconfident in their ability to handle the weather,” Ferris said. “One interesting factor we are looking at now is that often the weather data arrives, but it is not unusual for the data to arrive late, referring to weather that is a half-hour old or even more latent.”

Flight Simulator

He and his team are working to not only determine why these pilots flew into dangerous situations, but also identify the best and most effective alert system to assist the pilots in decisions about whether or not to fly into the area.

“We are looking for this project to define the minimum effective way that weather updates could be given to pilots while they are flying,” Ferris said. “The reason we say minimum is because it is the wild west, and anything that has the potential to be airborne, could be airborne. You cannot make assumptions that everyone has a nice GPS or that they have one of the dozens of products out there that allow them to get the key data.”

During the most recent study, Ferris observed how a pilot in the air received and reacted to alerts via the Apple watch, the Apple iPad and a cellphone.

“We chased thunderstorms in small aircraft to see if the software would give us the types of alerts it was designed to do, what that would feel like and look like, and what the attentional aspects of it were,” Ferris said.

After a couple years of simulation and in-flight studies, the team has found some answers regarding the best way to notify pilots of the weather ahead.

“We found that the vibrating aspects of smart watches were really useful,” Ferris said. “Even in a vibrating aircraft, the vibrations were received and responded to every time.”

Excited for the next phase of the study, Ferris believes this is a good application area to test attention-based problems.

“This next study will build a bit upon what we found useful in vibration cuing, and we are focusing our methods to be testing vibration patterns more directly,” Ferris said. “It’s a cool problem to work on, there will definitely be more flight testing next year.”

Saving veteran’s lives

Lawley is the deputy director of the TEES Center for Remote Health Technologies and Systems, whose mission is to “develop breakthrough remote health technologies, algorithms and information systems to address the critical needs of patients and providers globally and enable healthy living.”

As part of this center, he is actively involved in several projects related to using remote health technologies to improve the care of patients with chronic diseases, including Type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea and cardiovascular disease.

LawleyLawley is collaborating with Sasangohar and Dr. Hye-Chung Kum of Texas A&M, and Dr. Justin Benzer of the Veteran’s Health Administration, to develop technologies and smart phone applications for the remote care of veterans with post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).

“Over 20 veterans take their own lives every day due to depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges,” Lawley said. “For our veterans, PTSD is foremost among these. Our hope is to develop technologies and systems that will enable remote monitoring and care interventions that can save these lives.”

The key to this work is to develop effective smartphone apps for daily PTSD monitoring. Although some PTSD apps have been developed, they are standalone and do not remotely monitor the patient’s biometrics essential for remotely gaging emotional state. Essential biometrics could be changes in the patient’s heart rate or voice characteristics.

The group’s hypothesis is that key mental state change indicators can be monitored through mobile sensors to identify episodes of heightened PTSD symptoms. This will allow the daily tracking of the patient’s emotional state and implementation of timely interventions to save lives.

The team is taking a “user-centered” design approach to systematically derive key functional and informational requirements from stakeholders in order to develop an easy-to-use and efficient PTSD information system and to collect sufficient preliminary data to support the central hypothesis. The system developed could be a mobile app used by veterans and a set of displays to support clinicians’ workflow.

“The system will help veterans to communicate key mental state changes to healthcare professionals and enable clinicians to monitor patients by presenting them with information that supports their work and meets their expectation,” Lawley said.

The team has obtained seed funding from Texas A&M to develop the initial prototypes and will be seeking longer term resources to carry the project to full fruition.

“If we are successful, this research will save veteran’s lives,” Lawley said. “We feel privileged to work on the behalf of those who have suffered and sacrificed for our freedom.”

Benefitting the future

The research conducted by Sasangohar, Ferris and Lawley showcase the dedication they have to improving the quality of life for current and future generations.

As a result of their work, personnel in high-workload environments will benefit from memory aid technologies to more efficiently serve their patients. General aviation pilots will benefit from low-cost technology to receive alerts when approaching dangerous weather situations. Veterans will receive the appropriate care they need as a result of remote health monitoring technologies.

“Overall, we are concerned with human welfare,” Lawley said. “Our research is about helping people live longer and better lives.”