Four digital health projects receive funding from the UOC's eHealth Center

Four digital health projects receive funding from the UOC's eHealth Center

Four digital health projects receive funding from the UOC's eHealth Center

Imma Alberch

The eHealth Center at the UOC (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya) has announced the four winning projects in the 2023 proof of concept call, consolidating the call's status as an initiative that promotes cross-cutting and interdisciplinary research to address emerging challenges in the field of eHealth. With funding of €6,000 per project and a maximum duration of 15 months, these projects are focused on innovation in the field of health.


Conversational artificial intelligence and virtual reality to improve the clinical skills of health professionals

The first project to be awarded funding aims to integrate a conversational artificial intelligence application into a virtual reality application (ECAI-VR) that will provide training in clinical digital skills for health professionals. The research team intends to use these technologies to facilitate lifelong learning for health professionals.

The project is called "Embodied conversational AI in immersive virtual reality: reshaping the future of clinical skills training", and is led by Adrián Montesano, a researcher in the Intervention in Clinical and Health Psychology and Promotion of Well-Being group and a member of the Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences at the UOC; Sergi Blanco, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (Boston); and Clara Paz and William Eduardo Villegas, members of teaching staff at the Universidad de Las Américas (Ecuador).

The team wants to create an immersive virtual reality environment where professionals can interact with virtual avatars that represent real patients with specific health challenges. This project will create a reliable environment which is almost free of prejudices, and will enable users to undertake highly realistic immersive exercises. "It's a technology that will provide health professionals with an immersive and interactive learning experience, which will offer them continuous practice in clinical and communication skills," said Montesano.

The project is interdisciplinary and collaborative, as it requires synergies between various fields of knowledge including clinical and educational psychology, computational engineering, multimedia, and neural networks.


Proposal to digitize the process of care for depression in primary healthcare

The second project funded arises from the need to digitally transform the healthcare process for the treatment of depression. Appointments for mental health issues, and for depression in particular, are increasingly frequent in Catalonia's primary healthcare system. There was an 86.6% increase in appointments due to depressive episodes in Catalonia's primary care services between 2017 and 2022 according to a paper titled eHealth in the Management of Depressive Episodes in Catalonia’s Primary Care from 2017 to 2022: Retrospective Observational Study, led by Aïna Fuster, a researcher at the eHealth Lab in the eHealth Center and the UOC's Faculty of Health Sciences, and a research specialist at the Catalan Health Institute's Research and Innovation Unit.

According to Fuster, the first study showed that there are many appointments related to depression in primary healthcare and that telemedicine is important, and as such, "developing strategies that contribute to improving the process of care for depression is a challenge". Fuster added that the Catalan health system is undergoing a process of digital transformation, and that now is therefore the perfect time to identify where digital health tools could improve the care process involved in depression, and which ones could be used.

A team led by Carme Carrion, the principal investigator at the eHealth Lab at the Faculty of Health Sciences and at the eHealth Center, and Josep Vidal, coordinator of the Central Catalonia Research and Innovation Unit at the Catalan Health Institute/IDIAP JGol, now wants to develop digital tools and solutions that can be applied in the process of caring for depression. "We have evidence to show that the digitization of the process for caring for depression can contribute to improving the experience of people with depression and of the professional, and to building a more efficient and effective health system", said the researcher. To do this, in addition to identifying and evaluating the effectiveness of the eHealth tools already used in primary care all over the world, the research team will also create a working group on empathizing and ideation involving healthcare professionals and people with depression. Furthermore, one of the specific characteristics of the project is that it will conclude with a pilot test in Catalonia's health system. Carme Carrion also co-led a similar initiative on care for multiple sclerosis in 2022.


Non-invasive neuromodulation for long COVID-19

The third project funded arose in the context of improving the symptoms of people suffering from long COVID-19, a disease contracted by some individuals with a history of probable or confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection, with symptoms and effects that last at least two months and cannot be explained by an alternative diagnosis, according to the definition of the World Health Organization (WHO).

The research group is co-led by Dr Elena Muñoz, joint principal investigator at the NeuroADaS Lab at the eHealth Center and at the Faculty of Health Sciences of the UOC, and Dr Julio Gómez Soriano, a researcher at the University of Castilla-La Mancha. The other members of the team are Dr Maite Garolera, a researcher at the Hospital de Terrassa-Consorci Sanitari de Terrassa, and Dr Juan García, a researcher at the NeuroADaS Lab. The project aims to improve symptoms of long COVID-19 by means of non-invasive neuromodulation, a technique that has recently sparked the interest of the scientific and clinical community. It is a non-pharmacological and effective approach which has been consolidated with the creation of the International Consortium on Neuromodulation for COVID-19.

According to Elena Muñoz, "among non-invasive neuromodulation techniques, transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) has been shown to be effective in reducing fatigue and cognitive alterations in various neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders". It is a safe and comfortable technique for patients, and does not require any surgery or anaesthesia. It is also economical and portable, which means it can be applied remotely using devices specifically designed and manufactured for this purpose. All these factors make it a tool with considerable potential in telemedicine and digital health. This project is interdisciplinary, requiring the collaboration of experts in neurology, neuropsychology, physiotherapy and medical technology.


Low-cost sensors in everyday clothing to monitor hydration levels

HydraSport is the final project that received funding in the call. It was created in order to provide technological solutions for the supervision and monitoring of health indicators during sports. It is led by Joan Melià, a researcher at the IN3 at the UOC, and Sanjay Sarma, a researcher at the AutoID Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, working with Sergi López Soriano, a researcher at the IN3, and Rahul Bhattacharyya, a researcher at the AutoID Lab.

The proposal aims to investigate how to integrate low-cost radiofrequency-based sensors into everyday clothing in order to measure a person's hydration status based on their perspiration. This information will allow researchers to design a passive sensor (without any batteries) to identify different levels of hydration. These sensors consist of a small antenna with a microchip integrated into clothing, and they can be considered a "smart" evolution of the RFID tags that many brands of clothing already contain.

The researchers are keen to emphasize the sustainable nature of the project. "Our aim is to develop a low-cost non-invasive technology that's accessible to everyone, regardless of their purchasing power", said Joan Melià, the project's principal investigator. The group of researchers is seeking ways to democratize eHealth technology and make it accessible to everyone, and is opening up new economic opportunities for managing personal health from a perspective focused on prevention and awareness.


About the proof of concept call

This call also aims to provide settings for collaborative and multidisciplinary research at the UOC, and to promote solutions to the challenges posed by eHealth from fields not traditionally associated with health. Anyone interested in applying for a grant must include in their proposal at least one researcher from a scientific discipline other than their own as a participant and co-leader. The call for these grants intends to foster permeability between eHealth and other knowledge areas. The objective is to foster the generation of high-quality scientific evidence and to open the door to competitive funding opportunities that require initial results or a proof of concept to be submitted.

UOC experts

Photograph of Carme Carrion

Carme Carrion Ribas

Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences

Expert in: Evaluation of mobile health interventions (apps, sensors, wearables, etc) as regards their effectiveness and efficiency.

Knowledge area: Digital health and evaluating healthcare projects.

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Photograph of Joan Melià

Joan Melià Seguí

Expert in: Radio-frequency identification (RFID), contextual intelligence and smart cities.

Knowledge area: Networks, telematics, smart cities.

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Photograph of Adrián Montesano

Adrián Montesano del Campo

Expert in: Models and change processes in psychotherapy, construction of self and identity, interpersonal relationships, sexual and couple therapy, family therapy.

Knowledge area: Personality, psychological evaluation and treatments, and health and ICTs.

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Photograph of Elena Muñoz Marrón

Elena Muñoz Marrón

Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences
Director of the Master's Degree in Neuropsychology

Expert in: Non-invasive brain stimulation techniques: transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS).

Knowledge area: Neuropsychology, neuroscience and non-invasive brain stimulation techniques.

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