Opinion guest column

The importance of MIT’s telemedicine and telehealth class

MIT should continue offering its class on the intricacies of healthcare accessibility

Imagine an MIT course to which the students award a median score of 7.0 — the highest one on the MIT scale — for the overall course, as well as 7.0 in each of the following categories: Subject’s learning objectives were met; Grading thus far has been fair; Stimulated interest; Displayed thorough knowledge of subject matter; and Helped me learn. Imagine this happening for both 2017 and 2018. Also imagine the class comprising of students from diverse majors at all levels, ranging from freshman students to qualified MDs and PhDs from MIT, Harvard, and Wellesley. This is the MIT course that I selected when Dean Chandrakasan recently asked, “Which course has been most useful to you?” Although the class has received overwhelmingly positive feedback from students, it is at risk of not being taught again.

In recent years, researchers and industry partners have worked tirelessly to attain breakthroughs in mobile health, telemedicine, data-driven personalized medicine, interoperable electronic medical records, healthcare apps, and other headline-grabbing advances. However, nothing in healthcare can move forward at an appreciable scale without the ability to address all the key aspects of the deployment process, not just medical and technical. That’s where 6.884/HST.S58 (Telemedicine and Telehealth for Enhancing Global Health), a research project-based class taught by Amar Gupta, steps into the picture. Every week, Professor Gupta devoted part of the class for students to interact with a distinguished guest on a specific topic, ranging from accessibility in telemedicine to mobile technologies in developing countries. We looked at healthcare from multiple vantage points, including clinical, technical, business, political, and legal ones. One session that stood out to student Ismail Degani covered the topic of accessibility and was led by Judy Brewer, the director of the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). “Too often we engage in product design while taking for granted the human capabilities of our audiences. Ms. Brewer's lecture revealed a surprising array of potential business opportunities that are open to entrepreneurs who pay close attention to the needs of their users.” As for me, I particularly enjoyed Dr. John Halamka's (CIO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center) session on the importance of moving toward precision medicine, as I believe this is an area that MIT graduates are well-equipped to tackle.

Final papers showcased the diversity of the students’ interests and backgrounds. There were deeply technical computer science papers, including “Deep Learning of Holographic Reconstruction for Breast Cancer Diagnosis” by Ismail Degani and “Predictive Modeling for Telemedicine Service Demand” by Nancy Hung and Agni Kumar. Uma Girkar, a Masters student in EECS, wrote a paper at the intersection of law, data science, and neurology: “Analysis of the Diagnosis of Brain Death With the Support of Teleneurology: A Clinical, Legal, and Data Science Based Approach.” Sravya Bhamidipati and Riya Jagetia were moved by current events to examine the issues of institutional neglect in sexual misconduct: “Public Safety in the Age of Larry Nassar: A Computer-Based Antidote to Flawed Oversight in Academia and Medicine.” Alicia Chong Rodriguez wrote “Remote Patient Monitoring: A Wireless Garment ECG Cardiac Monitor in the Form Factor of a Brassiere,” and is a co-founder of Bloomer Tech.

The effects of this course do not end after the final write-up, however. Several startups have come directly out of it. One example that spun out of Gupta’s telemedicine class in 2016 is Siuvo, started by Wellesley student Cecilia Shen. Suivo is a specialized app-development company for doctors and patients. A second venture from a former student is TAIWANDR, an online video consultation company focusing on medical tourism.

My talented classmates at MIT seek to influence the future of technology, of medicine, of education, of law, but many of them feel blocked by institutional policies and government regulations. We are convinced that this model of experiential learning that encourages inclusion of diverse constituencies of students is increasingly appropriate, and more institutional support for such flagship courses deserves consideration. When it comes to working in and with the real world, nothing beats getting your feet wet, and that’s what this course helped me to do. It’s the first class I’ve taken that has bridged the gap between academia and working in the real world, giving us students a taste of all of the advantages, but also challenges, that come with collaborating across different institutions.

So high was the demand for the course that I remember the first session had barely any standing room. And yet, Gupta met with each and every student at their request throughout the semester to guide them in their research endeavors. More funding and TA support for classes such as this one would benefit students seeking learning experiences outside the traditional lecture hall, as well as the professors who pour so much effort into them. Furthermore, more publicity is needed to reach interested students. I only happened upon this class minutes before the first session, and if I hadn’t been combing through the course catalog class by class, I never would have found it. Gupta’s zeal for “Healthcare for All: Better, Quicker, and Less Expensive” is consistent with MIT’s Campaign for Better World and deserves serious attention by the MIT community.

Katherine Young is a member of the MIT Class of 2018 studying Computer Science and Engineering and Music.