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Artificial intelligence to improve the mental health of children with serious chronic diseases

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Children with potentially fatal diseases experience symptoms of depression and anxiety, nervousness and irritability (photo: Piron Guillaume / unsplash.com)

20/07/2021
Teresa Bau
Aimentia, a start-up sponsored by the UOC, is developing technology to generate hypotheses about patients' diagnoses using symptomatic and personal data in conjunction with Sant Joan de Déu Barcelona Hospital

Artificial intelligence helps customize therapy and predict patients' evolutions

Edgar Jorba, a student on the Bachelor's Degree in Telecommunications Technologies and Services Engineering at the (UOC), founded the AIMENTIA start-up with the aim of improving diagnoses and care for people with mental health problems. "I was very upset that skilled professionals didn't have any resources to improve their performance or patient care in an area with subjective opinions that could not be compared and obsolete manuals." The goal of the start-up is to bring mental health care into the modern, digital world, in which diagnoses and treatments are based on objective data: "50% of patients are misdiagnosed or not provided with the right treatment. There are no tools that enable high-quality interventions that can be validated outside of in-person scenarios," explained Jorba. 

AIMENTIA proposes a model that collects data from the patients (symptoms, family situation, etc.) with the help of technology. With the data, which is unlinked and anonymous, an intelligent system generates hypotheses that make it possible to recognize the patient's condition, differences between treatments applied to people with the same disorder, and other patterns that enable, with the application of artificial intelligence (IA) techniques, the customization of therapy and the prediction of evolution trends. "We created a programming language with which we can convert patients' data into a single language of symptoms with a view to providing a standard that all mental health professionals can use. Moreover, all the AI actions are directed and supervised by the medical professionals working in the virtual clinic. The information and treatment suggestions are issued to the professionals, who interpret them and make decisions in accordance with these inputs."

 

An instrument to measure the suffering of children and adolescents in palliative care

The start-up is involved in a study conducted by Sant Joan de Déu Barcelona Hospital to design and validate an instrument to assess the suffering of children and adolescents with chronic or advanced diseases that require palliative care. It is led by Daniel Toro, the psychologist attached to the Mental Health Department of the hospital's Palliative Care and Complex Chronic Patient Service. "We are working towards reducing the suffering of children and helping them, with their families, adapt to their new situation. The idea is for communication to be as effective as possible: we have obtained better health results, in both the children and their parents." Toro explained that the innovative lines of the service focus on "the assessment of the use of digital technologies in mental health. The AIMENTIA tools allow the early detection of situations brought about by the disease—and often not caught in time—so the appropriate action can be taken. In the future it may also help us see how the mental health of each member of the family influences the health of the rest."

17 children and adolescents over the age of eight who need palliative care and their families took part in the study, and this participation level is planned to be increased to 100 minors. In contrast to adults, there is a dearth of both tools capable of measuring the suffering of children in this situation and research into the impact of the disease, its treatment and the prospect of impending death on the psychological well-being of children and their families. Children with potentially fatal diseases experience symptoms of depression and anxiety, nervousness and irritability, which are often not distinguished from the physical symptoms caused by the disease. According to Toro, "it is a situation that changes as the disease progresses and we need reliable, non-invasive instruments to detect and monitor these changes to allow health professionals to act in the right way."

 

Mental health and the pandemic

The potential of the start-up's tools was demonstrated in a project undertaken during the Covid-19 pandemic according to the entrepreneur Edgar Jorba. "We registered an average of three new symptoms in patients during lockdown. These data were integrated into the system in less than three months, while with traditional methods it may have taken up to six years for them to be published in clinical manuals. Our society is evolving very quickly and we must be equally agile if we are to be capable of providing help when it is needed."

In the Sant Joan de Déu study, AIMENTIA collaborates with mental health patient associations such as the Association for Innovation in Mental Health and Education (ASIME) through the PerspectivaMente project in order to adapt the technological tools to the various age ranges of the children and their needs. The goal is to improve adherence to the project, using tools such as gamification and, above all, creating a comfortable space for them. The technology also offers a virtual clinic to allow Sant Joan de Déu professionals to monitor the patients' families. 

In 2020, AIMENTIA won the top award at the UOC's annual entrepreneurship event, SpinUOC, which is organized through the Hubbik platform.

 

This project promotes Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3 (Good Health and Well-being).

 

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The United Nations' 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and open knowledge serve as strategic pillars for the UOC's teaching, research and innovation. More information: research.uoc.edu. #UOC25years

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Edgar Jorba

Student on the Bachelor's Degree in Telecommunications Technologies and Services Engineering

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