Mobile app to aid homeless veterans

For Military Vets
UMass Medical School joins with the Department of Veterans Affairs to fight homelessness, mental health issues using smartphone technology

By Dennis Nealon

Wherever it occurs, homelessness can be viewed as being morally offensive. But it seems even more egregious when it affects men and women who have served and fought for their country in the U.S. military.

The distinction is not lost on researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans, who together are working on a new health strategy to combat the issue using smartphone technology.

The goal, says one of the researchers, UMMS psychiatry department Professor David Smelson, is to put self-help tools at the fingertips of homeless veterans in the form of applications or apps for mobile devices. With the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Worcester Polytechnic Institute, UMass Medical School and VA researchers are working to integrate technology based solutions into the existing healthcare delivery system. With “iLink,” users would access a full range of assistance, from mapping directions to a local shelter or clinic, say, to finding work, to locating a meeting or social worker who might relieve anxiety or coax them through a craving for a drink or a drug, or worse.

iLink, which is in development and could be available for pilot testing within a year, also would seek to identify ways to maintain permanent housing and create a more fulfilling future for veterans and their families.

Many stand to benefit. Estimates from the VA place the number of homeless veterans nationwide at about 67,000, and Washington has launched a campaign, called Opening Doors: The Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness, to stop the scourge by 2015.

The University of Massachusetts Medical School and UMass Memorial Health Care mobile technology initiative is supporting that goal in partnership with the VA Hospital in Bedford, Mass.

“We think iLink potentially could be a life-changer for participating vets,” says Smelson, PsyD, vice-chairman for clinical research at UMMS and director of the Bedford Node of the National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans at the Bedford VA.

Smelson and Edward Boyer, MD, PhD, professor of emergency medicine at UMMS, have already developed a “real time” substance abuse relapse prevention device and app called iHeal, which offers self-monitoring and therapeutic messaging at the moment of greatest need – when the client is at risk for a relapse.

Through iLink, clinicians would provide intervention and user support services. A mobile device worn on the wrist would measure stress levels, heart rate and other vital signs, then send that information to a smartphone where incoming data is monitored.

The technology would require minimal typing and single keystrokes to access resources including phone numbers and addresses. And, by using GPS data, the device would be able to pair the user’s location with available services in the immediate vicinity.

“What makes this particular smartphone application revolutionary,” says Smelson, “is it’s showing where resources exist and using the latest technology so veterans can get help immediately – regardless of logistical circumstances.”

Dr. Douglas Ziedonis, chairman of UMass’ Department of Psychiatry, has said the project furthers the psychiatry department’s commitment to working with the VA to improve the quality of care for veterans.