Capstone Profile: Designing resiliency for the pandemic flu

By Maya Rector

Team members from left to right: Suyasha Gupta, Jasodhara Raj, and Arnaud Bard de Coutance

Each year, UC Berkeley Master of Engineering students work on a team of 3 to 5 students with the goal of engineering solutions using cutting edge technology and methods to address crucial industry, market or societal needs. We’ll be documenting several capstone teams as they work on their year-long projects, one of them being the Designing Resiliency for Pandemic Flu team comprised of students Jasodhara Raj BIOE ‘18, Suyasha Gupta BIOE’ 18, and Arnaud Bard de Coutance ME ‘18.

With 2018 being listed as an influenza epidemic year and countries such as China already battling an H7N9 flu, it is vital that reliable international tracking can take place in order to prevent the spread of such diseases. The US government is aware of the fact that they’re not prepared for an epidemic outbreak of the pandemic flu, yet not much is currently being done to change this… until now.

The Pandemic Resiliency team realized the importance of their project after talking to various industry professionals and finding out the inefficiencies of the healthcare system when it comes to reporting cases to the Center for Disease Controls and Prevention (CDC). For instance, when doctors come across influenza cases, they are obligated to report it to the CDC which is done in order to track the virus circulating currently in the population. However, both public and private physicians tend to avoid running tests for influenza which prevents information from being tracked in the first place. This is often due to the current time consuming reporting procedures that must take place, and it poses a major concern because it means that valuable tracking information about highly contagious viruses such as influenza is left incomplete.

The main problem with the way that data is currently being tracked is that it is not reported in a standard form. This means that information is scattered and inconsistent, and oftentimes more time is spent figuring out paperwork than actually getting work done. While data is being tracked, it is often fragmented, which means that full accurate data reports for all influenza cases do not currently exist.

Photo by Hush Naidoo on Unsplash

In order to alleviate this issue, the team aims to develop a software to automate and standardize the reporting procedures for influenza cases. This would mean that hospitals and physicians do not have to report data themselves, which would save a significant amount of time and therefore increase physicians’ incentives to run the tests leading to improvement in tracking.

“The team aims to develop a software to automate and standardize the reporting procedures for influenza cases.”

The team has a go-to-market strategy in order to create a customer discovery modified product. This “product” would be easy to connect to diagnostics and hence would make the tracking for influenza cases easy from all over the world. The goal is to make sure that no human intervention is required while reporting the data and hence let people do their “actual job.” Since the product can be connected to wide range of devices, it would be an easy adoption to make for those involved.

In order to make their project a reality, the team has to first get permission from the CDC, who are the primary beneficiaries of this product. It is also important that people who have flu like symptoms go to a doctor so that the doctor can run a test and the information can be recorded. This would help CDC track the virus on a real time basis which is important as they not only can use this data to come up with a better seasonal flu vaccine every year but can also use this to find how the virus is evolving in the population and which would help in predicting a pandemic outbreak.

The team is employing a Lean launchpad startup methodology for their project, which is a unique approach to alleviating problems in the healthcare field through the use of startups. Ultimately, the group is most concerned with making a social impact, and the idea of doing something good to improve healthcare and help others is what has been keeping them motivated to work on their project.

Although the team is on their way to making their goal a reality, they have faced their fair share of obstacles throughout their project. For example, the team has conducted over 70 interviews with industry professionals and experts, and getting interviews in the first place has been hard. It has also been a challenge to find consistent concrete information due to a lack of reported data and information. Additionally, much of the project revolves around being able to contact the CDC, who has to be on board with their product to give them access to the records that will help them bring it to fruition.

While the team is comprised of two Bioengineering students, Mechanical Engineering student Arnaud Bard de Coutance also decided to take up the project due to his interest in health even though it is out of his usual mechanical engineering realm. Team member Suyasha Gupta took a course called “Hacking for Impact” that inspired her to make a difference through social impact, and although most of her experience is in conducting lab work and research, she enjoyed that she got to use a “get out of the building and talk to people” strategy in order to conduct interviews and gather information to see where help was needed.

The project is close to the hearts of Jasodhara and Suyasha, who are both from India and have seen firsthand how easily preventable health issues can take a negative toll on communities. Because of infectious diseases that spread fast in high-risk countries such as India due to its large population, many lives are lost each year that could have been prevented.

The team firmly believes that this problem needs to be addressed in order to assure the health and safety of individuals all over the world, and we’re excited to track their progress to see their hard work pay off and make a difference.

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