NSF funds effort to support home health aides through tech

An interdisciplinary team of Cornell researchers has been awarded a three-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop technological tools to ease the burdens on home health aides – mostly minority women who tend to be isolated, overworked and poorly compensated.

Existing technology for home health aides – who typically earn minimum wage to work in the homes of their seriously ill patients – is outdated, hard to use and focuses more on monitoring aides’ labor than supporting their work, said Nicola Dell, assistant professor of information science at the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech.

“Home health aides are asked to do a huge amount in terms of task management, care management, meal management, health care management – and all of these things are a really big burden,” said Dell, principal investigator on the grant, which is from the NSF’s Future of Work program. “The goal of this grant is to explore the space of designing technologies to make their work easier, better and more efficient, with the hope that we can have a positive impact not only on their own professional lives, but on the care that they deliver.”

Co-principal investigators are Deborah Estrin, the Robert V. Tishman ’37 Professor and associate dean for impact at Cornell Tech; Dr. Madeline Sterling, assistant professor of medicine in the Division of General Internal Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine; and Ariel Avgar, associate dean for outreach and associate professor at the ILR School.

The researchers have spent more than two years exploring how technology impacts the work of home health aides. They have done this work through community partnerships with the Home Care Industry Education Fund of the 1199SEIU, the largest health care worker union in the United States, as well as other licensed and certified New York City home care agencies.

With the grant, the team will explore artificial intelligence-based tools that can provide immediate and trustworthy step-by-step information to aides, about clients’ daily routines and needs as well as health situations that might arise during their care.

“Can we give them good, validated information that we have pre-vetted to have it come from clinicians, rather than them searching the internet on their own?” Dell said. “This could remove a lot of the burdens of remembering things or looking up things, while being cognizant that a lot of this information is medically sensitive and you really need to get it right.”

The researchers also plan to develop ways for aides to better communicate with their agencies, including automated prioritization of their requests for help; and tools that will collect data in order to yield insights about patient care. Additionally, they hope to create training programs to help aides advance in their careers while improving patient care.

“Despite spending so much time with patients, little research has focused on home health aides, and specifically how to make their jobs easier and how to better integrate them into the care team,” Sterling said. “Here, we seek to change that.”

The researchers applied for the grant before COVID-19 took hold in the U.S., but the pandemic shed new light on home health workers’ vulnerabilities. In related work, Sterling, Dell and Avgar found that despite providing front-line essential care to patients, aides often lacked personal protective gear and felt underappreciated by other health care providers and society at large.

“These workers have been shown to be even more at risk and marginalized because of the pandemic – they had to take the subway to work and worried a lot about not only their own and their family’s safety, but their client’s health,” Dell said. “Everyone was clapping and cheering for hospital workers, but home health aides’ work was invisible and unrecognized by society. So we’re excited to try to draw some attention to them and make their professional lives easier.”

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Jeff Tyson