After undergoing physical therapy for his chronic shoulder pain in 2009, then-39-year-old David Bahr noticed traditional therapy methods were not always effective in getting patients back on the road to recovery.
A graduate of Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business, Bahr is now the business manager of a four-person team dedicated to finding a solution for an increasing problem faced by physical therapists and their patients.
Currently, patients are given a photocopied sheet of instructions on how to perform their required exercises. Patient compliance with these exercises after leaving the therapy facility, out of sight of the therapist, is poor.
In addition, therapists have begun spending less time with individual patients, attempting to see larger numbers of patients in the face of decreased medical reimbursement. As a result, there is less direct supervision of the patient by the therapist even during therapy sessions.
To tackle both of these problems, Bahr and his colleagues created a new business venture whose goal is to produce affordable, accessible healthcare products using innovative technology. The company, called Innovative Healthcare Technology (IHT), was funded in part by a grant from the Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative.
Their product is EZ PT, a software system that monitors patients doing physical therapy exercises in real time. The software uses Kinect technology to compare the patient’s movement against an exercise template created by a professional therapist, scoring the patients based on how closely they adhere to the template.
Kinect is a motion sensing input device developed by Microsoft for their Xbox video game consoles and personal computers. The technology is being adapted by entrepreneurs around the globe for applications beyond the world of video games.
“People are naturally competitive, whether it’s with themselves or with others,” says Bahr. “If we can tap into that, we can achieve something good for the individual by making them healthier.”
The program was created specifically to combat the decrease in time spent between therapists and patients, as well as a lack of patient compliance in doing exercises on their own at home.
“The need is there, we have a solution, it’s going to happen and we want to be the ones to do it,” says Bahr.
The other team members include Sue Dahl-Popolizio, a licensed occupational therapist and doctoral candidate in ASU’s behavioral health program, software engineer and lead programmer Keith Rupp, and physical therapist Jamil Loman. The four teamed up two years ago after Bahr developed the initial concept of using Kinect technology to deliver therapy to patients.
“We have a push to gamify the system, to use some of the motivating factors used in the video game world to keep people involved,” said Bahr. “It’s tapping into the behavioral side of people, which the video game industry has been a real leader in.”
EZ PT can be used as both a home exercise program or as an adjunct to assist the therapist, who cannot effectively observe and provide feedback to multiple patients as they complete their exercises in the clinic.
The program builds on the market research conducted by the group, supporting the idea of improved patient compliance, the degree to which a patient will follow the exercises recommended by the therapist, as well as the accountability of the patient if they believe someone is keeping score.
“Healthcare is really pushing to evidence-based outcomes, so we are providing the evidence,” says Dahl-Popolizio.
According to a report published in PM&R, the journal of the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, shortages of physical therapists are projected to increase for all 50 states in the coming years. The report states, “By 2030, the number of states receiving below-average grades for their physical therapist shortages will increase from 12 to 48.”
After seeing these projections, Bahr and his team realized the importance of utilizing innovative technology like Kinect to remedy the problem plaguing the physical therapy industry.
“There’s this tremendous need for tools that will allow them to be more productive,” says Bahr. “They can see more patients and work more effectively with more patients, which is what [EZ PT] is designed to do.”
Jim Cook, the designated mentor for the Innovative Healthcare Technologies group through ASU’s Venture Catalyst program, believes that the team has a bright future in the world of physical therapy.
“This is the kind of company we want in our Venture Catalyst program,” says Cook. “They are all about high-performing, innovative technology.”
As the global business development director for Venture Catalyst, Cook is able to connect IHT with industry sponsors such as Microsoft’s Bing Fund, which provides angel investments to select startup companies with fresh, highly innovative solutions.
“Our companies this year have shown improvement, especially with the graduate students engaged now,” says Cook. “We’re seeing a different caliber of startups coming up.”
The combined talent of entrepreneurs, programmers and therapists allows IHT to effectively tackle the advent of this new, in-home physical therapy program for the healthcare industry.
“Collaboration is in, and I think we are a perfect example,” says Dahl-Popolizio. “We have successfully married technology and healthcare. From that perspective I think we are an excellent collaborative team.”