PhD student Jenna Tregarthen felt helpless as she watched her best friend suffer from an eating disorder, but that all changed when she was accepted into one of the world's most exclusive entrepreneurship programs.
Her Recovery Record app proposal was one of 10 accepted into the Summer Institute for Entrepreneurship program at Stanford, where she developed the app that allows patients to track their behaviour, and also uses positive engagement and game mechanics to encourage patients to complete homework that has been assigned by their therapist.
At the time, Tregarthen was completing a PhD in health psychology at the University of Wollongong, specifically looking at how to change people's behaviours over a prolonged period of time. She was motivated to apply for the program after becoming frustrated by the limits of research and associated data to translate to real-world change in peoples' lives.
"I've done research for a long time, been chief research investigator on some big projects and have been really frustrated with gap between what we know and accruing this big knowledge base, and how that transfers into impact on people's lives," Tregarthen said. "My barometer for success stories have been seeing change on the ground."
"Meanwhile, a really close friend of mine has an eating disorder for 15 years, and I've been watching, really frustrated, as she doesn't get day-to-day care and attention she needs, and seeing this massive boom in technology."
Over 200 proposals were submitted to the Stanford program, and, once accepted, she decided to leave her degree, with the support of her university. She subsequently earned a fellowship at Stanford to pursue the project.
The app was launched on the iTunes store last November, and there are also plans to do a proof of concept in a clinical setting. She said that the app complements, rather than replaces, traditional treatment methods, such as therapy.
"It's cognitive behavioural therapy," she said. "Taking the method of treating eating disorders and taking them from a stack of pieces of paper that patients are given to keep a record of everything they eat, drink, feel throughout the day, and putting it into an iPhone app."
"Most importantly, the actual app is with them all the time, 24/7. It gives them reminders of when to eat, and they can program a meal plan in advance, and it takes pressure off what to eat at meal times."
Every time a patient uses the app, they are rewarded with a puzzle piece, and they get a prize once they complete the puzzle. Patients can also send anonymous encouragement messages to each other, and can access valuable data that reveals trends in their behaviour.
"We have graphs that aggregate the data so it reveals the trends and triggers in their behaviour."
"For example, they notice they always binge when they're on their own, but when with other people, they don't. Or they tend to purge at a certain location, and different patterns in their behaviour, that data is valuable to them."
In December, she said that there was about 500 users, with about 150 are logging in daily, with a growth rate of about 20 per cent per day.
The app solves a real-world problem. Tregarthen has had visibility of the problems and solutions. She has strong networks in Stanford, Silicon Valley and the University of Wollongong.
There is no clear business model. Also, when dealing with health problems, there is always the issue of duty of care and risks around whether an app is doing more harm than good, but I believe that Tregarthen will ensure that this doesn't happen.
Eating-disorder patients and therapists are desperate for anything that improves the quality of care being provided. The positive engagement and gaming mechanic can potentially be applied to assist any disorder.
There are bound to be hurdles to adoption by therapists, psychologists and the wider medical industry, which is mired in regulation and vested interests.
Tregarthen is very knowledgeable and passionate about this issue, and has the resources and contacts to execute on her noble vision.