UT Social Work Professor and Burn Survivor Develops App to Help Burn Victims

Newswise — KNOXVILLE—Burn patients need support to transition to burn survivors. That's why Thereasa Abrams, an assistant professor in the University of Tennessee, Knoxville's College of Social Work and a burn survivor herself, has developed an app called the Bridge to help them heal faster.

Before arriving at UT last fall, Abrams worked at the Institute for Plastic Surgery at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, where she developed the first mobile phone app designed to support burn patients.

At UT, Abrams has found a multidisciplinary team interested in enhancing the app to serve the unique needs of burn survivors both nationally and internationally.

"I am very excited about the team of visionaries here at UT who want to create a product that works well and looks very professional," said Abrams.

The multidisciplinary team includes Xueping Li, an associate professor in UT's Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering and director of the Ideation Laboratory; Cary Staples, professor of graphic design in the School of Art, who is assisting developers to make the app both beautiful and functional; and Tami Wyatt, professor of nursing, and Dawn Coe, professor of exercise physiology, who are creating videos to educate burn survivors about changing dressings and the importance of exercise therapy.

"The goal of the original app was to decrease hospital readmissions and support the patient's healing, quality of life and resilience," said Abrams.

In 2016, more than 200,000 burn patients were admitted to regional burn centers in the U.S. for specialized intensive care treatment for burn injuries, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Abrams knows firsthand the challenges burn patients face. As a six-year-old, she was burned while playing with matches with her older siblings. They were melting crayons when her brother threw a cup of gas into the fire he had built on top of the family's barbeque grill.

"I did not stop, drop and roll, but ran so they had to catch me to put out the fire," said Abrams. "I'm very lucky the surgeon was able to save my life. My heart belongs to the providers who work in burn centers, the patients and survivors of burn injuries, and of course the firefighters."

She spent almost four months in the hospital.

"Most burn centers are regional, so when people leave the hospital they are nervous about going home and being responsible for their wound care, not to mention the social implications," she said.

Abrams hopes to launch the new version of the app late this summer. It will be piloted through a collaboration with William Hickerson, professor of plastic surgery at UT Health Science Center and director of the Firefighters Burn Center at the Regional Medical Center in Memphis.

The new app will offer instructional videos for dressing changes and range of motion, answer patient questions, offer health-related reminders and provide encouraging daily messages that are appropriate to each burn patient's stage of recovery. It also will capture feedback from burn survivors related to pain, mood, anxiety, patient self-efficacy, goal setting and achievement, social participation, wound healing, medication and pressure garment compliance, and will offer tips on returning to work.

Abrams hopes the app will be especially useful during the first three months after patients leave burn units and hospitals.

"Survivors are resilient," said Abrams. "I want to encourage these survivors to reach their full potential. They experience excruciating pain, difficult processes of healing, isolation because of the risk of infection and ongoing psycho-social challenges. I got such a slow start and I want to help them heal faster than I did."

College of Social Work Dean Karen Sowers says Abrams' work is groundbreaking.

"She brings a depth of understanding to the development of a new and effective tool that will change people's lives," she said. "She's gathered together an amazing multidisciplinary team to ensure a top-tier product. The breadth and diversity of the expertise of this team is exemplary and a model for others to follow."