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Students' diabetes-management app wins $50K health care challenge

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A team of local medical and college students was the big winner of The Nicholson Foundation & Rutgers Health Care Challenge last week, as it was awarded a $50,000 grant to continue work on a smartphone application that will help those with Type 2 Diabetes in underserved populations.

The winning team developed Copernicus Health to address Type 2 diabetes complications that are largely preventable. In an effort to lower hospital costs and reduce the incidence of adverse outcomes, Copernicus Health provides a comprehensive mobile platform to engage and motivate patients to meet evidence-based metrics proven to reduce the serious complications that result from poorly managed diseases.

One of the major trends in health care is a focus on patient outcomes and overall health, rather than a “fee-for-service” model in which doctors are paid for their treatment services.

Using gamification, the Copernicus Health application allows patients to receive points for taking their medicine, self-educating about their disease through the app’s embedded learning tools and monitoring key clinical metrics obtained at the doctor’s office.

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Once patients accumulate a predetermined point value, they become eligible for rewards in the form of direct cash infusions sent to their reloadable Copernicus debit cards or discounts to use at healthy lifestyle businesses, such as fitness centers and farmers markets. To help ensure accuracy and real health improvements, users are only eligible for cash rewards after having their lab values verified by their physician.

The winning team was made up of Rutgers undergraduate computer science student Jeet Patel and second-year Robert Wood Johnson Medical School students Tom Nahass, Josh David, Brian Friel, Jonathan Haskel and Sam Schild.

“Chronic disease management is often one of the most difficult processes to change within the vulnerable community, because it requires not only an improvement in diet and lifestyle, but also an improvement in health literacy, or one’s understanding of his or her disease,” Nahass said. “Copernicus Health aims to meet this need by providing a product that educates patients and encourages healthy behavior.”

The competition was funded by The Nicholson Foundation, whose mission is to improve the quality and affordability of health care for New Jersey’s underserved communities. The announcement was the culmination of a four-month competition.

The challenge encouraged students and faculty to form interdisciplinary teams and work together to submit proposals for ready-to-implement service delivery or technology innovations that can improve the quality and contain the costs of health care for underserved populations.

More than 50 students and faculty from Rutgers participated, and the awards ceremony gave the top three teams, including Copernicus Health, the opportunity to pitch their ideas to a panel of judges, including a representative from a venture capital group, distinguished health care professionals and academic leaders. 

Team “Save A Neck” created BreatheNVS, an application that directs patients to educate themselves and share information with their physicians on noninvasive management of their respiratory symptoms to “save their necks” from invasive tubes, which are commonly used for patients with breathing muscle weakness. BreatheNVS educates patients about the benefits of noninvasive ventilation and provides them with the necessary resources in evidence-based medicine to seek and receive optimal care.


Team “MAP Training” presented its new intervention that combines mental and physical, or MAP, exercises to help women overcome severe stress and trauma caused by homelessness, sexual or physical abuse, and mental illness. The intervention was translated from neuroscientific studies that discuss the pairing of aerobic exercise and learning. MAP Training combines 30 minutes of silent meditation followed by 30 minutes of aerobic exercise patterned after the popular Zumba dance exercise program.

Submissions were judged on the following criteria: creativity, impact (i.e., ability of the intervention to improve health outcomes of vulnerable populations and reduce costs within a year’s time), feasibility of implementation and sustainability.

The Nicholson Foundation funded the Healthcare Delivery Challenge as part of its commitment to stimulate a culture of innovation across New Jersey’s health care institutions that serve at-risk populations.

“The students and faculty from the Rutgers community are helping to lead the way for a healthier New Jersey for all residents,” said Joan Randell, chief operating officer of The Nicholson Foundation. “Their innovative ideas, tenacious problem-solving skills and commitment to reaching at-risk populations will help change the future of health care and the lives of patients in New Jersey.”

The Nicholson Foundation & Rutgers Healthcare Delivery Challenge also supports the theme of Rutgers University’s strategic plan to “improve the health and wellness of individuals and populations” by addressing health challenges, locally and globally.

“Those of us at Rutgers who participated in the Challenge are quite proud of the creative, multidisciplinary concepts the teams developed, many of which have real potential to benefit our state’s residents,” said Margaret Brennan-Tonetta, associate vice president for economic development at Rutgers. “This exciting learning and public service opportunity came about because of The Nicholson Foundation’s generosity, which we greatly appreciate.”


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