Nonprofit applies machine learning to global healthcare

Feb. 15, 2018, 11:42 p.m.

Health4TheWorld is the first nonprofit of its kind to use machine learning to provide treatment tools and educate health care professionals in under-resourced regions.


Founded by Stanford Medicine professor Ankur Bharija and University of California — San Francisco Medical School professors Bhavya Rehani and William Dillon, Health4TheWorld aims to eliminate disparities in healthcare and effectively engage both providers and patients through a mobile app and an online academy.


Stroke prevention app


Health4TheWorld Stroke, a free Android and iOS app developed by the organization, educates stroke patients and their families about stroke risk factors, prevention, mobility and more. The app also offers speech, exercise and mental exercises. It has been downloaded more than 1,000 times and is available in seven languages.


Health4TheWorld leaders first launched the app in Nepal and have since gathered feedback in the 22 developing countries in which the app was released, including Bhutan, Cameroon and Thailand.


“Our aim is to create an app that is a friend, which they love so much they want to use it every day,” Rehani said. “Something that makes them smile even if they’re having a bad day or lying alone in bed without family members.”

Nonprofit applies machine learning to global healthcare
Courtesy of Health4TheWorld


In addition to continuing to improve the user interface, the organization’s current goal is to make medical education more accessible, whether for personal or professional use.


Medical professionals from a total of 15 institutions across the United States contribute to the rich bank of educational content through recorded lectures and live workshops that assist physicians worldwide. Over 100 live workshops have been conducted and telecasted to Africa, Asia and South America.


Upon moving out to the Bay Area, Rehani connected with computer science professor Jerry Cain, who recommended that Rachel Grau ’16 lead the coding for the app.


To cater to a diverse population of patients, the mobile app is currently available in multiple languages, including English, French, Swahili, Nepali and Spanish. This diversity not only comes in ethnic or cultural contexts but also in medical symptoms and conditions. Since every stroke patient is unique, one of the concerns before the app’s launch involved weighing the benefits and risks of creating both a widely-applicable and condition-specific resource.


“We have to be careful that we create something that’s one, generalizable, two, the right patient uses it in the right way, and three, they don’t end up harming themselves,” Bharija said.


According to the researcher, the network between the organization and local providers allows for a mutual understanding that the app is to be used under medical supervision.


The app also features animated exercise videos, virtual reality (VR) scenes and conversational tools for patients who have lost their voice.


The VR tools are mainly for relaxation purposes and have been found to have positive medical effects on patients’ progress in treatment, according to Rehani.


The app’s VR exercises are based on motor imagery. If a patient imagines a particular movement but can’t actually do it, the thought still stimulates the part of the brain that controls movement.


Moreover, the mental vacation that VR provides is a rehabilitative strategy and coping mechanism for patients who often become isolated and depressed when they are in hospital beds.


“[The VR experience] marries the idea of seeing the outside and of imagining you doing the exercises for the first time,” Bharijia said.


A new version of the mobile app will launch in about a week.




Health4TheWorld also aims to expand its educational initiatives. A new website, known as H4TW Academy, will increase the range of diseases that the organization addresses and will soon go live, according to the organization’s current website.


From infectious disease to cardiology, the medical specialities are comprehensively covered. The website will launch in a few months and is free to access by medical school students, residents, fellows and even practitioners worldwide. Users will also have the opportunity to discuss issues and ask questions in designated forums within the Academy.


Dillon is most grateful for the volunteers and professors who have approached the group and have been willing to contribute without compensation. He said he is excited to explore the next phase of the project, which involves increasing public relations efforts to spread information and fundraising to fuel the internal operations of the organization.


Health4TheWorld began with Rehani’s concern with the lack of stroke care in rural India. As she launched her career in medicine, Rehani realized that global healthcare needed more sustainable solutions.


“Somehow I was always dissatisfied because I felt like it was a temporary solution,” Rehani said. “You volunteered at a site for a few months and then just left.”


Inspired by the rapid innovations in the Silicon Valley, Rehani hoped to engage parties in the healthcare realm with a hands-on education.


Bharija raised a similar question: “When we can use Uber and Amazon to fix our own problems and to do our own online shopping, why can’t we use technological solutions to fix the education, workforce and patient engagement problem?”


This challenge drove the researchers to create partnerships in remote regions in India, opening new doors and creating opportunities for implementing social infrastructure supporting technological solutions.  


Health4TheWorld runs on volunteers from both the technological and health sector. As the number of tech experts hoping to contribute to impoverished healthcare grew, news of such an organization soon spread. There are now local volunteers who work alongside physicians and nurses in the locales and further the philosophy by word of mouth.


Sandra Jeanine Ortellado ’18, a current public relations intern at Health4TheWorld, came upon the organization while seeking non-profit work in science and health communications. Last summer, she traveled to Paraguay, where the app was just launched. With family ties to Paraguay, Ortellado felt that the visit was impactful because she saw how it addressed the problem of health in context.


Ortellado interacted with the doctors and patients to introduce the app and gather feedback. She documented many of her Health4TheWorld work experiences in a blog on the organization’s website.


“I really like to have a personal connection in my work, and it was a good opportunity to have my heritage and my work be tied,” said Ortellado. “This kind of work is really conscious of context. It’s not just pushing westernized medicine on a population, but it considers where they’re from, what their culture is and what health means in their particular context or community.”


Contact Elaine Park at elainep ‘at’


Elaine Park is a freshman exploring interdisciplinary majors between the humanities and sciences. Besides writing for The Daily, she enjoys journaling for herself and getting hands-on with artsy projects, whether it’s drawing or photography.

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