fit tech

Houston organization embraces digital in a time of immediate need

The YMCA of Greater Houston has launched a virtual platform called HTX+. Image via HTXplus.org

It started with a Zoom class. Shelby Saylor remembers shutting the doors to the YMCA of Greater Houston on March 17, 2020, as the threat of the coronavirus pandemic surged across the city. Like the rest of the world, the executive director of healthy living had no idea when the YMCA would reopen to its community.

"How do we reach our friends and our community in a time where they are isolated and maybe a little lost?" asked Saylor.

Using a webcam, the staff at YMCA of Greater Houston began recording videos and supportive content for members within the early days of the pandemic.

"We were more concerned with getting a product out there because it was needed, and then we iterated for quality," she says.

Over time, the concept of digital programming evolved into HTX+, the YMCA of Greater Houston's new on-demand virtual platform with fitness and wellness courses and resources for all ages.

The platform has emerged at a time when digital resources have become a necessity for people to work and live. The YMCA has been a long-held bastion of community outreach, making its resources accessible to all and working to eradicate inequalities. The virtual service emerged as a solution for addressing food insecurity, racial inequities, health disparities, social isolation, and learning gaps from afar.

"It was a two-pronged process," explains Shelby. "We had to serve the immediate needs...so we looked at the gaps in our communities as well as the gaps from closing out brick-and-mortar for a period of time," she says.

From there, the YMCA answered another question: "What gaps can we fill once we are at 100 percent capacity?"

"People are going to come back at different levels," says Saylor. She describes her own uneasiness going into a crowded grocery store and feeling her heart race. "It's going to take some time [for people] to unlearn some of that social isolation," she anticipates.

HTX+ includes fitness, mindfulness, virtual personal training, and educational resources members can access from anywhere. Saylor feels the platform, available on the Houston YMCA app and online, will help enhance the Y experience even after the pandemic. She notes the interactive platform can supplement members' in-person workouts and also provide the connection to those who are not yet comfortable returning to the facility.

"It has tremendously grown with webinars where you can ask questions and be a part of more than just the content that we're all used to consuming right now," she says.

One offering that has helped members at the YMCA handle the onslaught of pandemic stress is meditations. Saylor, who says she typically prefers to be behind the camera, was proud to step out of her comfort zone to teach a midday meditation.

Programs targeted to different age groups, from children to seniors, have helped provide resources and tools to two generations with unique needs.

"I'm really proud of our ability to find stuff for younger members because there is just not that much out there," she says. The HTX Kids program has evolved to include STEM activities, sports, crafts, and learning. "Seeing all come to fruition from one Zoom video to where it is now—I couldn't be more proud," she continued.

YMCA Virtual Personal Training www.youtube.com

ForeverWell, a program for members ages 55 and up, has also expanded digital opportunities to members.

"We focus on things that maybe younger communities don't have to tackle beyond your social isolation but as well as activities of daily living, balance and things they can do that will improve how they can move around, stay healthy, and stay connected," says Saylor.

The YMCA's mission to provide health equity also helps communities that are disproportionately impacted by disasters like the pandemic and recent winter storm. The organization has set up food drives and even put warming centers in place during Winter Storm Uri.

"That's what makes us not a gym. We're going to open our facility for you to come and get a hot shower, unlike a big box gym. We're going to do that because it's not about fitness; it's about making sure basic needs are met," says Saylor.

Saylor knows that communities of color as well as the senior population, who may be on a restricted income, can benefit from the tool.

"It really helps them become stronger, healthier, and attach to something. That connectedness is worth its weight in gold," she says.

The YMCA of Greater Houston adds content to HTX+ on a weekly basis, and Saylor says programming will continue to grow long after the pandemic.

"Now that people have been exposed and have integrated digital into their life, regardless of when the pandemic ends, I believe that will always be a part of our new way of life," she says.

"Digital is never final. It's going to take our whole team and our whole community to work together to continue to meet those digital needs because it's not going anywhere," she continues.

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Building Houston

 
 

Koda Health, Houston, uses AI to help guide difficult conversations in health care, starting with end-of-life care planning. Image via kodahealthcare.com

A new Houston-based digital advanced care planning company is streamlining some of the most difficult conversations in the health care industry around palliative care.

Founded by Tatiana Fafanova, Dr. Desh Mohan, and Katelin Cherry, Koda Health uses AI to help patients create advance medical care directives and documents—such as a living will—through an easy to use web-based interface.

Koda Health uses a conversational platform where users can enter information about their values, living situations, quality of life wishes, and more while learning about different care options at their own speed. It also uses a proprietary machine learning approach that personalizes audio-video guided dialogue based on the patient's individual and cultural preferences.

The app then autogenerates legal and medical documents, which patients can notarize or electronically witness the forms through the app or on their own.

According to Fafanova, who earned her PhD in in Molecular Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and now acts as the company's CEO, what historically has been a time consuming and expensive process, through Koda Health, takes an average of 17 minutes and is completely free of charge to the end user.

"We hope to reduce any outstanding barriers to access that might exist," Fafanova says. "It is very frequently the oldest and the poorest that are the highest utilizers of health care that don't have access to these solutions."

The app is also projected to save health care systems roughly $9,500 per patient per year, as it allows for hospitals and organizations to better plan for what their patient population is seeking in end-of-life-care.

The B2B platform was born out of the TMC's Biodesign Fellowship, which tasked Koda's founding members with finding solutions to issues surrounding geriatric care in the medical center. In March 2020, Koda incorporated. Not long after ICU beds began to fill with COVID-19 patients, "galvanizing" the team's mission, Fafanova says.

"It was no longer this conceptual thing that we needed to address and write a report on. Now it was that people were winding up in the hospital at alarming rates and none of those individuals had advanced care planning in place," she says.

After accelerating the development of the product, Koda Health is now being used by health care systems in Houston, Texas, and Virginia.

The company recently received a Phase I grant of $256,000 from the National Science Foundation, which will allow Koda to deploy the platform at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist and test it against phone conversations with 900 patients. Fafanova says the company will also use the funds to continue to develop personalization algorithms to improve Kona's interface for users.

"We want to make this a platform that mimics a high quality conversation," she says.

After Koda completes the Phase I pilot program it will then be eligible to apply for a Phase II award of up to $1 million in about a year.

Koda Health was founded by Tatiana Fafanova, Dr. Desh Mohan, and Katelin Cherry. Photos via kodahealthcare.com

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