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Mitch Smith/MEDILL

With a prototype of an inhaler holder in the foreground, Brent Grossman works on a cell phone app to help asthmatic teens. A computer science graduate student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, he has been working on the project since spring.

Treating asthma? There's an app for that

by Mitch Smith
Nov 14, 2012


Courtesy of Brent Grossman/UIC

A screenshot of the cell phone app being designed for asthmatic teens. When patients use their inhaler, their avatar shoots a basketball. The results are graphed on the bottom of the screen and allow patients to track their doses.


Courtesy of Brent Grossman/UIC

In order to encourage asthmatic teens to use their inhalers, University of Illinois at Chicago computer scientists designed an inhaler holder. When teens use the inhaler in the holder, information on usage and dosage goes to a cell phone app.

Sure, teens would rather play basketball or check their cell phones than even think about their asthma medicine.

But researchers hope a new sports-themed cell phone app will encourage asthmatic kids to use their inhalers and allow doctors to more closely monitor their patients.

Rush University Medical Center plans to begin testing the app this winter, making it available free to 10 pre-selected African Americans ages 11 to 16 from the Chicago area.

Black children have higher rates of asthma than their white counterparts, said Dr. Giselle Mosnaim, a Rush University researcher leading the app user study. African American kids with asthma are also less likely to take their medicine and more likely to visit the emergency room than their white peers, Mosnaim said.

But Mosnaim said she believes those risks can be reduced by interceding during an asthma patient’s formative years.

“Adolescence is the time when people develop lifelong health habits,” she said. “If you can intervene in adolescence, then hopefully you can make a change that can last them through the rest of your life. I can’t change whether you have asthma or not, but I can change the outcome.”

Here’s how it works: When youths in the study use their inhalers, the time of their dose is relayed to a cell phone app being designed by graduate students at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Electronic Visualization Laboratory.

That app allows the kids to track their own progress and lets doctors see, in real-time, when patients are using their inhalers and how much of a dose they’re taking. It gives the patients a reminder if they’re due for another puff.

The app is also designed to be fun. It allows boys and girls to create an avatar – with customizable faces, mustaches, glasses and other features – and shoot a virtual basketball each time they use an inhaler.

“The idea is to show them something and to make the app represent their progress,” said Brent Grossman, a UIC master’s student working on the project.

The consequences of asthma can be serious. The lung disease is prevalent in children and is characterized by "attacks" that can cause patients to wheeze, cough, lose their breath and sometimes have to visit the hospital as their airways constrict, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The condition can usually be controlled by using a prescription inhaler.

As part of the study, participants will receive a smart phone with the app installed, along with a data and calling plan.

“We want them to use the phone as their phone,” Mosnaim said, “so when their asthma messages come up, they’re on a phone that they’re already using.”

An initial group of 10 students will start using the app as early as January, she said. If the test program is a success, the group might be expanded and the app eventually could be available to other doctors and their patients.

The app design has been a months-long project at UIC, where students have met with Mosnaim and worked to create a teen-friendly interface that is lighthearted, easy to understand and able to collect the data that Rush researchers are depending on.

At a November meeting, UIC students working on the project gathered around a long table and met with Robert Kenyon, the computer science professor guiding their work. The students discussed potential bugs, how to fix them and lingering complications with the app.

“The goal is, at the end, they get so used to taking their doses that they don’t need the game,” Kenyon said. 



Chart: Produced by Mitch Smith/ MEDILL with data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Full statistics available here: