NIH funds project to help senior citizens access health care

01/08/04

Blacksburg, Va. -- The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded funding to computer science researchers in the Virginia Tech College of Engineering for a project aimed at making it easier for senior citizens to access Virginia Department for the Aging (VDA) services on the World Wide Web.

Athman Bouguettaya, associate professor and director of computer science at Virginia Tech's Northern Virginia Center in Falls Church, and Denis Gracanin, assistant professor of computer science at the center, will use the two-year $208,000 NIH grant to develop "middleware."

In the computer industry, middleware is a general term for any programming that serves to "glue together" two separate programs. Typically, middleware programs provide messaging services so that different computer applications can communicate.

Bouguettaya and Gracanin are developing a graphical user interface for the VDA website that will enable users to view and interact with the site through icons, pictures, and menus. They also will incorporate the latest privacy protection techniques. "Web services are poised to play the same role that data has played in database management systems," Bouguettaya said.

The healthcare needs of senior citizens are expected to surge as baby boomers start retiring, Bouguettaya noted, which will further stress cost-spiraling healthcare systems. Recent studies suggest that senior citizens are the fastest growing group of web users, and advances in web standards and technologies offer a cost-effective way to maintain and use large healthcare information systems.

"Senior citizens are challenged in ways fundamentally different from the general population," Gracanin said. "Receiving services in a convenient way is not a matter of choice for them, but of necessity. Failing health accompanied with limited mobility may force senior citizens into unhealthy choices."

The researchers will develop a prototype of the middleware that will be posted on both the Virginia Tech and VDA web sites. The prototype will be evaluated and tested by a focus group of senior citizens selected by VDA and the university.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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