Students develop a mobile app for healthcare providers to ease pediatric patients’ fears

When asked to find a way to ease children’s fears at the doctor’s office and in the hospital, computer science majors at the University of Florida designed GatorPal, a mobile app, to help medical practitioners gather data and suggest therapies to calm anxious young patients and support their families.

Going to the doctor’s office can be scary for any child; facing a hospital procedure can be even more daunting. So when Andrew Sowinski and Marc Diaz were asked to develop an app to ease pediatric patients’ fears, they welcomed the opportunity.

Computer science majors at the University of Florida, undergraduates Sowinski and Diaz also belong to the UF Dream Team—a student-run nonprofit that provides volunteers and creates technologies to enhance the lives of pediatric cardiac patients at a North Florida Hospital. “There is really something special about being able to help people you have never met by sitting down and writing some code,” says Sowinski, director of the Dream Team’s engineering division. Diaz shares that passion: “My motto is coding for the social good,” he says.

In January 2019, a group of Sowinski and Diaz’s fellow Dream Team members competed at the university’s SwampHacks event. There they developed a 3D virtual reality (VR) experience called SurgeryU, which virtually walks children through the surgical environment through rendered models of a hospital, pre-op rooms, and operating rooms.

Working in Google Cloud, they created a simple VR app to collect data on patient reactions to the virtual tour experience (such as length of time looking at objects such as surgery tools, time spent in pre- or post-op rooms, and patient surveys). The app would send data to Cloud Firestore, a fully managed, serverless database that is part of the Firebase mobile platform. This would enable medical providers to evaluate and address pediatric patients’ fear levels using efficient, on-cloud analysis.

Image: Diagram 1: Unity and Cloud Firestore Integration

“It was a platform to help child life specialists better treat children through analytical computing,” Sowinski says. SurgeryU won the hackathon’s Organizer’s Choice Award and got the Dream Team thinking about how to build on that success.

Shortly after the hackathon, Arman Hezarkhani, a consultant for the Google Cloud team, reached out to the students, offering to be a technical mentor on Google’s behalf. “We realized SurgeryU could get a lot more use if we made it mobile, without the need for high-grade PCs in the hospital,” Sowinski says. “Winning the award and connecting with Arman catalyzed our drive to help a lot of people. The idea for GatorPal mobile app started from there.”

Building a companion app

With Diaz as project captain, eight Dream Team engineers set out to design a mobile app using Google Cloud. “We picked Google Cloud because of all the documentation, tutorials, and resources,” Diaz says. “There's always a tutorial out there for any language and for anything that you need—and they even have a GitHub for all the sample documentation, too.” They took advantage of Google Cloud credits for learning to use the tools for free.

Over several months, the team developed the GatorPal. Its purpose is twofold: (1) provide a system for health care providers to evaluate pediatric patients’ fears and offer therapies (such as controlled breathing, awareness exercises, guided focus, and visualization); and (2) create a means to record, store, and analyze patient data, track patient progress, and make post-procedure therapeutic recommendations.

GatorPal’s user interface (UI) features a password-protected log-in screen that uses Firebase Authentication for secure sign-in. “I could authenticate in 10 lines of code instead of creating my own version,” Diaz says. “The front end is deployed on Google App Engine. We used Google Cloud functions for CRUD (Create, Read, Update, Delete) operations and Cloud Firestore for the database.”

Image: Diagram 2: Users access GatorPal from any device. The application's front-end files are served from App Engine and it authenticates users with Firebase Authentication. The user can then access and store application data from Cloud Firestore which is served through Cloud Functions.

The team says they enjoyed working with Google Cloud products thanks to their simplicity, ease of integration, and ease of interoperability. “It was great to use Google Cloud serverless tools to reduce time managing the infrastructure, so we could focus on the code,” Diaz says.

They also appreciate that Google Cloud products are HIPAA compliant.* “All customer data is encrypted, so we don't have to worry about doing our own encryption,” Diaz says. “That way we can focus on our vision, our code, and get it up and running.” He adds, “We also appreciate the collaboration tools provided on the Google Workspace platform,” such as Gmail, Docs, and Drive.

“It was great to use Google Cloud serverless tools to reduce time managing the infrastructure, so we could focus on the code.”

Marc Diaz`, student, University of Florida

Beta testing with providers and patients

Going forward, the team plans to integrate the SurgeryU VR experience into the GatorPal mobile app using Google Cloud Storage and Firebase Authentication, Cloud Firestore, and Google App Engine standard. They plan to work with Cloud Endpoints as their API management system to monitor and secure their operations and make sure all requests to the system are fully authenticated.

Dream Team is seeking a technical advisor/child psychiatrist at UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital to help them plan for beta testing SurgeryU and GatorPal. “We want to make the system friendly and have a positive impact on pediatric patients at the hospital,” Diaz says. Thanks to Google Cloud tools, “Being able to work with what the user sees and needs, rather than worry about what is going on in the back end is really nice.”

Adds Sowinski, “We’re making GatorPal as flexible as possible so it can be used essentially whenever a child is afraid—whether during a procedure as simple as a vaccine using a needle, all the way to open-heart surgery. We want to make this as scalable as possible so it can be a quick tool for use.”

To other students thinking about using Google Cloud to build, the UF team says dream big. “It's just amazing Google Cloud resources are made available for students,” Sowinski says. “We're just starting out in the industry, and being able to leverage these powerful tools at no cost is an amazing experience. It really gives us the drive to go further and do more.”

*Google Cloud products are compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). For more on our approach to security and privacy design, see HIPAA Compliance on Google Cloud.

“It's just amazing Google Cloud resources are made available for students.”

Andrew Sowinski, student, University of Florida

Get started with Google Cloud’s higher education learning center at: g.co/learncloud/programs