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UAH researchers team with mental health nonprofit to pioneer use of artificial intelligence to improve access to care in North Alabama


BYLINE: Russ Nelson

Newswise — Researchers at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) are teaming up with a local organization to pioneer the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to enhance the lives of autistic and neurodiverse individuals in North Alabama. The project is being funded by Little Orange Fish (LOF), a Huntsville, Ala., non-profit, to improve access to mental healthcare for families and healthcare providers. The effort will be headed by Dr. Jerome Baudry, the Mrs. Pei-Ling Chan Chair and professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at UAH, a part of the University of Alabama System, in partnership with Dr. Daniel Adamek, the founder and executive director of Little Orange Fish.

“A difficulty for many neurodiverse persons and their caregivers and families is navigating the complex landscape of accessing care and support: medical, psychological, social, financial, educational, etc.,” Dr. Baudry explains. “This novel project will use geographic information systems (GIS) and chatbots to map the autism and neurodiversity ‘ecosystem’ in North Alabama. The goal is to develop an expert tool that will bring together all the parts of the equation: clinicians, insurances, education, state agencies and other resources.”

UAH is a strong leader in geographic information systems and artificial intelligence, the researcher notes. “We will use this expertise to identify what’s working and what’s not. This research will establish UAH as the reference for AI-enabled healthcare access, in particular in the mental health landscape, where access to care is particularly critical and, sadly, challenging. There is a lot of public and private goodwill, but it’s very difficult to identify what resources are available, particularly how to leverage these resources and get funding to sustain that support. We want to have a working prototype in a year for an AI-driven tool that will analyze specific family situations and deliver useful and actionable advice on how to effectively access care and treatment.”

GIS tools are computer programs that allow the user to visualize and analyze geographically related data to help understand relationships in the real world.

“First, where are the providers, the families, the schools, the educational resources? Our GIS tools will ‘connect the dots’ of all these data points,” Dr. Baudry says. “Second, we want to use artificial intelligence tools to interrogate these GIS maps in a language that is as natural as possible. We will do that by training a specialized chatbot, such as ChatGPT, that will allow, for instance, a parent of a neurodiverse child to find needed help without having to use complicated computer programs and specialized technical vocabulary.”

The Baudry Lab will perform the computational and technical work within the team for the initiative. Additional collaborative support will be provided by Dr. Lavanya Ashokumar, a lecturer in the UAH Department of Atmospheric and Earth Science, Asia Sticka, UAH program coordinator of the Regional Autism Network and Kelly Goff, the regional autism coordinator for the Alabama Department of Mental Health.

“This effort is not meant to build a tool that tells individuals what they should do in any situation, or to replace the clinical and social professionals,” Dr. Adamek, the director of Little Orange Fish points out. “It’s aimed at providing individuals with comprehensive information about their specific circumstances in terms they can easily understand to empower them to make better decisions and assist in getting access to essential care. Our mission at LOF is to foster greater public understanding of the roles, value and current state of mental healthcare. We want to bring greater visibility to available resources that support behavioral, emotional and mental healthcare needs to ensure immediate access to essential support and treatments.”

In the future, Dr. Baudry envisions this advance being used by cities, healthcare organizations or schools to model their own healthcare access. “Fortunately, UAH is also very active and successful in big data analytics, and we will work with the world-leaders that we have at UAH on these problems. By using expert GIS approaches coupled with AI tools, we are developing the technology of tomorrow that the entire population will one day use routinely the same way we use smartphones today.”


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