Grant to fund University of Alabama study of dementia caregiver support app

Grant to fund University of Alabama study of dementia caregiver support app
An app for caregivers of dementia patients, co-created by the University of Alabama's Dr. Nicole Ruggiano, will be used by caregivers of UAB memory clinic patients as part of a newly funded study. (Getty Images)

The national Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality has funded a joint project between the University of Alabama and Florida International University to test the efficacy of a web and mobile application designed for dementia caregivers.

Nicole Ruggiano, UA associate professor of social work, helped create CareHeroes, a multi-function app designed to improve communication between physicians providing dementia care and caregivers, while working at FIU. The app aims to decrease caregiver burden and depression symptoms, which are often experienced because of the stress of caregiving.

Nicole Ruggiano, associate professor of social work at the University of Alabama, is co-creator of the CareHeroes app. (University of Alabama)

The app’s developers completed a small feasibility study in Miami three years ago, and Ruggiano has tested a beta version of CareHeroes in rural areas of Alabama. Researchers found that caregivers who used the app’s features successfully improved communication with physicians and were eager to fully integrate the app and its features into their care routines.

The two-year, $300,000 Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality grant will allow Ruggiano and fellow lead investigator Ellen Brown, FIU associate professor of nursing, to use the app to study self-efficacy, confidence and knowledge of dementia in more than 60 participants between program sites in Alabama and Miami.

The team will also examine how using the app may improve dementia care.

“If the caregiver can provide more accurate information about the patient to the physician in real time, will it improve clinical decision-making?” Ruggiano asked. “Does it reduce the ongoing problems of depression and burden in caregivers?

“The scope of this study hasn’t been done with this type of technology, as it relates to dementia and caregivers.”

As part of the project, caregivers of patients receiving memory clinic services at the partnering sites – the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Miami Jewish Health – will use CareHeroes to track and share information about the patient’s symptoms with providers while also receiving support for their caregiving needs. The researchers will examine the effects of using the app on patient care and caregiving experiences over the period of one year.

The CareHeroes app is designed to make it easier for a caregiver to assess a dementia patient’s condition week to week and communicate the information to doctors. (Getty Images)

“The app securely sends information from home and is easy for the physician to see,” Ruggiano said. “The caregiver can take a clinical assessment of the person with dementia, and the app creates color-coded charts to gauge what’s getting worse or better, and it’s on a weekly basis to see what’s current. This real-time activity is important. I interviewed a woman in west Alabama who cares for her husband, and, she said, because she’s ‘on her husband’s schedule’ and has to wait to see her husband’s doctor, she often can’t remember specific dates when his symptoms occurred.”

Ruggiano will lead the Alabama site for the project. Brown will lead the Miami site, and Dr. Marc Agronin of Miami Jewish Health and Dr. David Geldmacher of UAB will direct the memory sites.

Ruggiano said the project’s mission to fill the communication gap between stakeholders in care is strengthened by the app’s development history. Researchers have incorporated feedback from minority groups and those living in rural populations, where the information and communication divide is often more severe.

The study will begin with focus groups and interviews with providers to understand how the app can be used within the context of clinical care.

The app will not be available to the general public during the duration of the study. Participants, however, will be able to download the app for Android and iOS platforms.

This story originally appeared on the University of Alabama’s website.

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