Students' pandemic hotline plan interests health agency

Editor's note: This story was revised July 9, 2007, to make clear that plans call for the pandemic hotline model to be made freely available to anyone interested, not marketed as a commercial product. Some statements in the original version implied that the model would be marketed commercially.

Jul 6, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – Stanford University students have proposed a model for a local pandemic influenza information hotline staffed by home-based volunteers, and the Santa Clara County Public Health Department in San Jose, Calif., is helping the students develop it for potential use by local governments and other organizations.

Four Stanford students designed the hotline during a spring course offered through Stanford's Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship (SIE) Program, part of the School of Engineering. This program offers classes in which students seek to produce innovative, technology-based proposals with a potential for social benefit.

The classes aim to teach students methods of innovation and the art of social entrepreneurship and to develop their technical, leadership, team, and presentation skills. The student's professor, William Behrman, elected to work on innovations for a pandemic after consulting with public health experts; the students knew the course's theme when they signed up.

On completing the class, the four students published a report on their work, titled "Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Saving Lives in the Next Pandemic." Other groups of students developed plans for two other projects: (1) an Internet site or home page with local, timely pandemic information and (2) a public school curriculum to educate children and parents and develop "community resiliency" by fostering and mobilizing community support networks. Reports on all the proposals are available on a Stanford Web site (see link below).

According to the students' report on the pandemic hotline, people calling in would be greeted by an automated message asking for their language preference and the reason for the call. Emergency calls could be routed directly to experts, bypassing the volunteer, who would have general knowledge.

The caller would then be routed to a volunteer for help. The volunteer would use a computer program to obtain local pandemic information on the Internet by typing in the caller's zip code. Callers could obtain information on such topics as hygiene, local school closures, and how to stay healthy during a pandemic. If the volunteer's Internet service went down—a possibility during a pandemic—calls would be routed to other volunteers.

Behrman, an assistant consulting professor at the School of Engineering, said the county health department has the expertise to help the students make their project a reality. Two students are working on the technical aspects of this hotline while the health department conducts research and development this summer, he reported. He said the goal is to make the software for implementing the hotline available to anyone who may need it, including government agencies, businesses, and other organizations.

"There will be a large surge in demand for information in a pandemic, and with social distancing in place, this is a way people can contribute," Behrman said.

Currently, there is no national hotline set up to provide information in the event of a pandemic. Behrman said most organizations and companies already have the hardware to establish such hotlines, but they will need a "how-to kit." He said setting up such a hotline is time-consuming, and no one will want to wait until a pandemic starts to install it.

Kaley Skapinsky, a 20-year-old Stanford junior who is working on the project at the county health department this summer, said the hotline would provide a source of information during a pandemic for vulnerable populations, people without computers, and those who need person-to-person contact.

She and a classmate, Kevin Webb, are working on developing a San Francisco Bay area hotline model and a general model that could be used by anyone in the country.

"We want to have a product with scripts, costs, and details of what technology is needed so an individual organization can set up a hotline within 2 weeks," she said.

Behrman said the Stanford team is developing the content and design for the pandemic hotline using an open-source model, with the results to be made freely available, not sold as a commercial product.

He said there is also outside interest in the other two ideas the students developed, and students will work with organizations to make them freely available to the public as well.

See also:

Report on Stanford students' pandemic hotline proposal
http://sie.stanford.edu/1/reports/hotline.pdf

Stanford Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program with links to reports on all three student projects
http://sie.stanford.edu/1/index.html

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