April 24, 2023

Digital health project looks for enthusiastic UCalgary students to help those with Parkinson's

Help community, contribute to science, and create a research opportunity for yourself
A few members of the OpenDH team led by Dr. Bin Hu.
Bin Hu and a few of the leaders on the OpenDH team interviewed by CBC. Kelly Johnston, Cumming School of Medicine

A group of University of Calgary undergraduate students is hoping to convince dozens of other students to participate in OpenDH. The educational program allows learners to gain experience with advanced wearable technology, contribute to science, conduct research, and improve the lives of people with Parkinson’s disease.

“We are training students to be health coaches in the community. We’ve already have more than 120 people signed up and we need even more,” says Melody Chu, a fourth-year nursing student. 

“Our team works with health professionals to develop safe, personalized exercise programs for people who have Parkinson’s disease. A student health coach helps the person learn the technology, and regularly checks in with them to monitor their progress.”

Designed to provide students with an opportunity to help people with Parkinson’s, the program is also an opportunity to discover and test digital solutions to advance health care.

“Our program is filling an important gap in Alberta’s health-care ecosystem,” says Dr. Bin Hu, MD, PhD, professor in clinical neuroscience at the Cumming School of Medicine and program supervisor. “We need creative solutions to meet the needs of an aging society. I’ve estimated if we could train 500 health coaches and equip patients with the wearable technology, we could help everyone living with Parkinson’s in Calgary with their rehabilitation and exercise needs.”

The station leaders for OpenDH represent a number of faculties at the University of Calgary.

OpenDH station leaders say the program is a great way for undergrad students to be on a research team.

Becca McInnes, University of Calgary

For students in all faculties, OpenDH is rife with opportunities.

“Students have the chance to develop new skills in research, analysis, leadership and patient management,” says Allison Yang, a first-year psychology student. “It’s rare for a first- or second-year undergraduate student to be involved in a research project at this level.”

Student volunteers progress through six stations. In the first three stations they try the exercises themselves as they learn about the technology, Ambulosono. Exercises include everything from marching in place to isolated exercises focusing on individual joints to six-minute walk tests.

“Our program is a very unique and innovative way of engaging students in digital health revolution,” says Farhan Raza, a first-year biomedical sciences student. “The data we’ve collected from healthy individuals as well as those with Parkinson’s has allowed us to develop and test digital protocols for many diagnostic tests and exercise management.”

Exercises are developed using gold standard protocols and can be done to music. For Parkinson’s patients, suddenly freezing while walking is the most frequent cause of fall and injury. Research has shown that music combined with movement can help the brain stop the body from freezing. To keep people engaged in exercise, students created playlists of motivational songs exclusively from the inductees of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.

“Station Six is for public education and engagement,” says Shahryar Wasif, a first-year psychology student. “For example, our Northern Beats program allows the daily walking data submitted by OpenDH participants to be added up and projected on a giant map linking Calgary to the hometowns of Canadian artists. People enjoy seeing how far the group has walked.”

Hu says there simply aren’t enough community supports to reach everyone who needs rehabilitation. He believes the technology and student health coaches could help even more people who could benefit from rehabilitation at home including those recovering from stroke and living with other mobility challenges like multiple sclerosis and arthritis.

“One 85-year-old woman is always bringing us cookies to show her thanks. Before the program, no one checked in on her, now students are calling weekly to check up on her health,” says Hu. “The students’ compassion, creativity and commitment are inspiring. They embrace technology and understand how AI can be utilized for health-care solutions.”

OpenDH is recruiting students, especially those who are interested in developing effective AI-based tools in delivering digital health services to patients. Hu hopes once more health coaches are trained, recruitment can begin for people who need help in rehabilitation and exercise at home.

The OpenDH leadership team includes: 

  • Station One; Abdul-Samad Ahmed (kinesiology), Doreen Amini (biological sciences), Izma Ghani (biomedical sciences)
  • Station Two; Farhan Raza (biomedical sciences), Dhruvil Patel (biomedical sciences), Farheen Zahra (neuroscience)
  • Station Three and Five; Melody Chu (nursing), Armaan Singh (cellular, molecular and microbial biology), Marcela Jaimes (physiotherapist)
  • Station Four; Elbert Tom (kinesiology), Allison Yang (psychology), Rose Muhammed (mathematics and statistics)
  • Station Six; Shahryay Wasif (psychology), Jun Heo (computer science)

Supervisors include Drs. Bin Hu, MD, Taylor Chomiak, PhD, Stephanie Plamondon, MD. 

Community partners include Grizzly Boxing and Fitness Club, Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, and Pedal for Parkinson’s.

Bin Hu is a professor in the departments of Clinical Neurosciences and Cell Biology & Anatomy at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) and a member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute and Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute at the CSM.

Brain and Mental Health Strategy (BMH)

Led by the Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the University of Calgary, the BMH Strategy explores an improved understanding of the brain and nervous system and new treatments for neurological and mental health disorders, aimed at improving quality of life and patient care. Learn more about the HBI


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