Improving Health IT Is a Personal Mission for MITRE Engineer

February 2013
Kristina Sheridan
Kristina Sheridan

The large loose-leaf notebook on Kristina Sheridan's desk tells a story few can understand unless they've lived through it.

Inside is an Excel spreadsheet tracking the symptoms of her daughter's multiyear battle against Lyme Disease. Sheridan has recorded all 30 symptoms on a scale of 0 (no symptoms) to 3 (severe). There are also pages of documentation from a long road to recovery that includes 30 doctors, five hospitalizations, and 15 diagnoses in three years.

"I really didn't know what it was like to manage a chronic illness until my daughter got sick," says Sheridan. "There's all kinds of stuff—hospital visits, medical tests, paying the bills, arranging home treatments, conducting research, handling medical devices, administering medications, and tracking symptoms. And that's in addition to keeping up your regular life. If I were the patient, I would never be able to pull this together."

She joined MITRE in 2008, not knowing the company had a growing program in health care. She knew, however, that she wanted a change of pace after more than 20 years in the aerospace industry, combined with a return to the not-for-profit world and better work-life balance. But Sheridan's experience with her daughter's illness produced a passion for health care, and MITRE gave her a chance to turn it into action.

Sheridan provides systems engineering and transition management expertise to many agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, supporting clinicians and other health care providers as they try to deliver higher quality care.

And she has an idea she believes will make it easier for families to manage their chronic illnesses and communicate with their providers—without a bulky notebook.

Better Communication and Lower Costs

Sheridan leads a MITRE research project that is developing the Patient Toolkit, which will offer an easy way for patients to electronically record symptoms, treatments, and medications and share the information with doctors.

As principal investigator for the project, Sheridan researched what factors prevent patients from fully engaging with their providers, investigated current health IT software, and wrote the requirements for a mobile application to fill in the gaps. She and her team are building a beta version of the tool, which is designed to be beneficial for all patients and is not specific to any single disease. Sheridan is working with the University of Virginia's engineering and medical center on a clinical trial to assess the reliability of patient/caregiver reported data, and to evaluate the impact of this data on chronic condition outcomes.

(Video) Kristina Sheridan talks about the Patient Toolkit.

The idea is to make it easier for patients to tell when symptoms are getting worse so they can alert their doctors. Sheridan learned from her daughter's experience how important tracking and communicating symptoms can be.

"Doctors often need more than a regular 15-minute appointment," she says. "To improve patient-doctor communication and keep costs as low as possible, you need an engaged and educated patient and a well-informed doctor. The toolkit will help you gather information and provide a more accurate view of the patient's health, their current and past treatment plans, and test data. Tracking symptom information over time for chronic illnesses is important information for evaluating the effectiveness of treatment and identifying issues early. This information may also help reduce costs by eliminating duplicate testing and treatment trials, and by identifying new concerns or co-morbid conditions earlier before they require more extensive treatment."

The overall goal of her research is to identify ways to allow patients to fully understand their health situations and be able to communicate easily with their providers. Another benefit of the toolkit would be to increase patients' treatment compliance (such as taking their medications) by providing reminders and alerts. Sheridan's team is building the toolkit prototype using open source code, which will make it easy to transfer the technology to the government and the public in the future. Her team is collaborating with another MITRE innovation program team, hReader, to leverage the secure mobile application framework coming out of that research.

A Multifaceted Career

Little in Sheridan's early career pointed toward a future in health care. Originally from England, she earned a master's in astronautics and space engineering from Cranfield University at Cranfield, Bedfordshire. She started out as a system design engineer and continued her career after moving to the United States in 1990, where she operated and managed satellites, did program management work, and eventually coordinated satellite launches.

Sheridan's first project when she joined MITRE was for the Internal Revenue Service. But once the IRS project was finished—and with her passion for health care kindled by personal experience—Sheridan contacted MITRE's Center for Transforming Health (CTH) and asked if there were any positions open. There was one: an information systems engineer to assist with a data center migration at the Food and Drug Administration—which Sheridan recalls as "a perfect fit" for her new goals. "I've always been somebody who needs to believe in what they're doing. If I'm working on something I really believe will make a difference, then I'm happy. Now I wake up in the morning and look forward to going to work. When I go home, I enjoy spending time with my kids. It's a true work-life balance and I love both parts of it."

And perhaps best of all, Sheridan's daughter is undergoing a new round of treatments and is responding well.

—by Russell Woolard

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