SFU researchers study patient needs for COVID-19 vaccine distribution software

Drs. Diane Gromala and Chris Shaw lead team analysing individual patient needs

PHOTO: RF._.studio / Pexels

By: Emma Jean, Staff Writer 

A group of researchers at Simon Fraser University are working to identify the most effective roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccine. Led by Full Professor Dr. Diana Gromala and Professor Associate Director Dr. Chris Shaw, the team from the School of Interactive Arts and Technology are interviewing individuals to develop software that will allow them to efficiently time and track their COVID-19 vaccinations.

The SFU researchers are one component of a larger collaboration with researchers, businesses, and health organizations, called Project ABC, whose goal is the “authorization, booking, and coordination of widespread serological testing and immunization.” It is funded by Digital Technological Supercluster, an initiative by the Government of Canada.

Their research consists of analysing interview responses from individuals in British Columbia and identifying their “invisible” needs. For instance, a main factor in their research is identifying the complexities of a person’s living situation, like any caregivers or family, that would complicate factors of effective vaccination. The software developed by their partners in Project ABC integrates these needs and the complexity of the factors in each patient’s health into an interface.

“If there are a million vaccines to be given out, there’s a million people. If you treat them all as individuals, you leave out something very important — which is families with social structures where, if one person is sick, the whole family comes in with them,” said Dr. Shaw in an interview with The Peak. “It’s not just a bunch of individuals individually booking vaccination meetings; it’s all these other complexities,” he added. The researchers are developing the system with an aim to account for these complexities when determining the order of vaccinations.

Dr. Gromala describes their work as part of a branch of computer science called Human-Computer Interaction, which focuses on designing technology to create the most ease for its users with a “prime consideration [to] really put users, or people, at the centre of that.” The intersection of Human-Computer Interaction and public health was key to their previous work with their research on chronic pain, as well as Dr. Shaw’s work on arthritis. This aids their work on COVID-19, as Dr. Gromala has experienced first-hand “how [chronic conditions] can affect a person’s ability to use technology in ways that range from the subtle to the profound.”

Once the software is developed, both Dr. Gromala and Dr. Shaw hope it will be used to improve existing healthcare infrastructure to better accommodate people with chronic conditions. “The software that we’re developing with our partners, after COVID-19, will be really useful in our ability to help people get to their healthcare needs when they’re not in the home.” Dr Gromala added, “I think the most important thing is our ability to track people’s health over time because our healthcare system hasn’t been historically designed for dealing with chronic conditions.” 

Dr. Gromala noted that they believe the current Canadian healthcare system tends to treat the episodes of illnesses rather than the underlying cause of them, and explained that this will especially affect COVID-19 patients experiencing long-term effects of the virus.

Once the software is developed, the researchers aim for its use by local health authorities as a pilot program in its hospitals and in the Downtown Eastside.