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The Professor Is In: Zhan Zhang

News Story

Seidenberg Professor Zhan Zhang, PhD, was recently awarded a $175,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to continue research pertaining to wearable technologies for health care workers. Zhang discusses the intersection between health and technology, upgrading health care to the "smartphone stage," and much more.

Our global pandemic has underscored the necessity for efficient and effective health care technologies—something that Seidenberg Professor Zhan Zhang, PhD, has been thinking about for quite some time. To that end, he recently received a $175,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to continue research focusing on developing wearable technology that uses sensors and monitoring equipment to help paramedics collect and utilize real-time patient data in a hands-free way. Zhang discusses his research, the vital intersection of technology and health care, and much more in this month's "The Professor Is In."

1. You have been interested in the intersection of technology and health care for quite some time. How did you initially become interested in the field? 

Technology plays an important role in transforming healthcare. Many information systems used in healthcare today, however, are more like old-school cellphones—they are not easy to use and pretty cumbersome. My goal is to take us to the smartphone stage—creating health information technologies that are easy to use and navigate, and enable health professionals to quickly find and comprehend relevant information and then make informed decisions. Being able to do so could lead to streamlined workflows, better care performance and ultimately, better patient outcomes. This is why I am interested in health information technology. 

2. Has COVID-19 altered your outlook in regard to the intersection of health and technology? 

Yes. There are many opportunities for technology to help people during pandemic. Telemedicine/telehealth is a key example. People can be treated without having to go to waiting rooms and hospitals, reducing the likelihood of getting infected.

Another thing I have been thinking about a lot since the pandemic is the relationship between technology, health, and ethics. For example, several countries have deployed mobile technologies to help with case detection and contact tracing to limit the spread of COVID-19. These automated, proximity-based contact tracing apps use Bluetooth to identify who is near them. This is a very promising solution that can be efficiently deployed widely for general public interest. However, those techniques also raise complex questions about privacy and consent. What personal information will be collected? Who will have access to such private information? For what purpose and for how long? Tracking personal information is beyond what most Americans are accustomed to, and some may consider it a violation of their privacy. Protocols and policies should be in place to ensure that the ethical challenges are properly addressed when considering the use of digital technologies for public health surveillance during pandemics. 

3. In layman's terms can you describe the work you are currently doing?

In the United States, there are nearly 20,000 reported Emergency Medical Services (EMS) agencies providing emergency care to over 37 million patients annually. Management of critically-ill patients (e.g., trauma and stroke) requires rapid information integration and decision making in diverse settings with limited resources and time. However, paramedics lack such mechanisms to do so. Furthermore, paramedics need to keep their hands on their patient so they don’t have time and ability to interact with handheld computing devices. To that end, my goal is to design and develop wearable technology that employs both voice- and gesture-interactions and integrates sensors and monitoring equipment to help paramedics collect and integrate real-time patient data in a hands-free manner. 

4. How has the NSF grant impacted your work, and what will the grant help you accomplish going forward?

The NSF grant gives me needed resources (e.g., hiring students, purchasing equipment) to continue this important research that has significant societal impacts. There are a few things I am hoping to accomplish:

1. To establish an interdisciplinary area of research that addresses real-world problems while also advancing the current state of computing technologies for enhancing human abilities to capture, integrate, and analyze critical data in a natural way.

2. To establish an excellent platform for an integrated education and outreach program. A diverse group of students, including underrepresented minorities and first-generation immigrants, will be involved in this research work so that they can gain first-hand experience in research, user-centered design, and software development. 

3.  To widely distribute research outcomes through premium journals and conference publications to broaden the impact of this research.

5. Are there changes that would you like to see made across the health care field, that can be done relatively easily, that might make us better prepared to fight pandemics and health threats going forward?

Educating people, especially those most vulnerable populations, on what to do and not to do. Technology can help (e.g., contact tracing apps, social media, health authority websites, etc.) but we should be aware that many marginalized and vulnerable populations do not have steady access to internet and smart phones. Our society should pay particular attention to those most at risk and keep them safe, connected, and informed during pandemics.