Developing AI-assisted telecoaching solution for people with disabilities and diabetes

Mohanraj Thirumalai, Ph.D., has received a three-year National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research grant to investigate and develop an artificial intelligence-assisted telecoaching solution for people with disabilities and diabetes.

Think of the virtual assistant apps, plus the apps that give you recommendations, and then think about how they can work for health purposes. We are working on tailoring mHealth apps that will have voice-based interactions on command and will be able to recommend the proper foods for you to eat or provide physical activity suggestions based on your condition."

Mohanraj Thirumalai, assistant professor in the Department of Health Services Administration at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and director of Information and Communications Technology for the UAB/Lakeshore Research Collaborative

It is in this context that Thirumalai's project plans to develop an artificial intelligence-assisted, individualized, family-focused, lifestyle modification telehealth intervention program for people with disabilities and Type 2 diabetes.

"Approximately one in four people with disabilities is diagnosed with diabetes, in contrast to about one in 10 people without a disability being diagnosed with diabetes," said Thirumalai, who is also a member of the Center for Disability Health and Rehabilitation Science in the School of Health Professions. "Despite this inordinate level of disparity in diabetes prevalence, the lack of accessible and inclusive diabetes management solutions is simply unacceptable -; especially with today's technology."

Thirumalai has a 19-year history designing various telehealth intervention delivery systems targeting various channels of communication. He has been involved with multiple telecoaching projects and noticed several possible improvements to the process.

In conceptualizing the needed improvements for this work, he won the UAB Nutrition Obesity Research Center's "Creativity is a Decision" award in 2017 and the UAB Diabetes Research Center's "Pilot & Feasibility Program" award in 2018 for related ideas.

"This is a cyclic problem. Diabetes can lead to a disability, and a disability can lead to diabetes," Thirumalai said. "The only way this will end in the near future is by making accessible and inclusive diabetes management programs available for everyone across the country using telehealth."

Telecoaching has proved to be an effective strategy for various health behavior change interventions among many people. Thirumalai has seen this firsthand as he carries a wealth of experience in designing large intervention delivery systems. He worked on an online exercise and nutrition program for National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability that currently has more than 40,000 registered users.

Thirumalai will combine his experience, with the various expertise available at the NCHPAD, UAB Diabetes Research Center and the UAB/Lakeshore Research Collaborative to design and deliver this much-needed program to many people in need of quality health care.

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