University of Vermont

Med Student Heads to Clinton Global Initiative University Conference to Present Text Messaging Software

Luke Neill
First year medical student Luke Neill receives his award from Matthew Perry. Photo by Paul Morse/Clinton Global Initiative.

What if texting – the obsessive communication mode of teens and young adults – could help prompt patients to stay on track with medication for chronic conditions like high blood pressure, HIV, diabetes, or other illnesses?

University of Vermont medical student Luke Neill, Class of 2016, is working with his long-time friend, Sam Meyer, on software that will do just that – give pharmacists and other healthcare providers a way to reach patients on a device they use all of the time – their cell phones. This low-cost idea could empower patients to take charge of their health, help to avoid additional problems or potentially life-threatening complications, and reduce the public health cost of medical non-compliance, which is estimated to total about $100 to $300 billion annually in the U.S. alone.

Although smartphone and computer applications for inputting personal medication information already exist, this software allows doctors and pharmacists to set up the messages and track compliance data. Meyer is working on the programming; Neill is developing the specific functions that will be useful for providers and patients. As a service that’s free to patients, this system is meant to reach populations that might not otherwise have access to such support.

“There’s a large problem in the U.S. with medication adherence,” Neill says. “We want to address that in a way that’s cost-effective.”

This month, the pair will have the chance to present their project at the Clinton Global Initiative University Conference at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, held April 5 to 7, 2013. Social activists, celebrities, political leaders, and experts in technology, business, and other fields – including former President Bill Clinton himself – come to this meeting to learn and support innovative ideas from students. Last year, more than 1,000 students from all 50 states were invited attend.

All invitees create a “Commitment to Action” that is specific and measureable, and geared to help on any scale – from the local to the global.

“Access to basic health information and instruction is one of the primary obstacles to improving healthcare globally,” Neill states in his Commitment to Action. “By leveraging the simplicity and ubiquity of text messages, I will be able to provide patients who lack the typical healthcare infrastructure with relevant and specific instruction and support.”

Neill’s and Meyer’s HIPAA-compliant software program allows patients to enroll at the pharmacy and then begin receiving text messages that help them understand their medications and implications for their health. The messages are not simply reminders, Neill says; they are designed to monitor behavior patterns and change habits as well.

“The best part is that we can contextualize the feedback and give it to them,” says Neill. Providers also benefit from aggregate data on compliance. Eventually, the goal is to make the software available in developing countries where access to other technology is limited, but cell phone use is widespread.

Neill set up a pilot to test the software with first-year students at the College of Medicine and help work out any bugs prior to the Clinton conference; next he plans to network with local pharmacists for a trial. All of these efforts come with a price tag – ultimately Neill and Meyer will be faced with applying for FDA approval, which can be a costly legal process.  Neill said he’s been in contact with some foundations and non-profits interested in helping support the cause.

The Clinton Global Initiative University could be beneficial on the financial front as well: More than $400,000 in seed funding is available to attendees. Neill’s commitment has also been selected for recognition prior to a panel discussion on Ensuring Medication Safety, as an exemplary approach to addressing a global public health challenge.

“It’ll be great to be at the conference and constantly surrounded by people with motivations I share,” Neill says. “Great ideas will come out of it.”

A Lake Placid, N.Y. native who attended UVM as an undergrad, Neill says he’s also hoping to build a connection between UVM and the Clinton Global Initiative University for future students. “I’m really grateful to the UVM College of Medicine,” Neill said. “I’m representing the College at the conference.”