Written by: Rosina Hamoni

Artificial intelligence (AI) is an emerging technology that has found its way into all sectors, including healthcare. While discussions about AI’s role in the workplace often becomes intertwined with fears of large-scale automation and even displacement of human labour, it can play an important role to support innovative healthcare solutions. AI can profoundly impact healthcare and improve health outcomes. Recent applications of AI and machine learning in healthcare extend to identifying treatments for COVID-19.

To understand some of these changes as our healthcare system grapples with new demands and stresses, ICTC’s Rosina Hamoni sat down with Harrison Brown, CEO of HeadCheck Health, a software company delivering an innovative concussion management platform that leverages AI to improve the brain health of athletes.

Rosina: To start, can you tell me a little about why you started HeadCheck Health? According to the way you’ve described it, the company seems to be a bit of a passion project for you.

Harrison: Absolutely. As an athlete growing up, I’d always been playing contact sports. I played on the Hong Kong National Rugby team as well as on a university rugby team during my undergraduate studies. As you can imagine, playing sports like these, I’ve had my fair share of injuries. Things like a broken arm or leg is something that a number of serious athletes may experience regardless of the sport, but contact sports like rugby, football, or hockey, for example, come with a higher risk of more serious injuries, like concussions. I was interested in ways to mitigate the effects of injuries like these. During my Master’s and PhD studies at UBC, together with my mentors and advisors, I pursued research on improved concussion practices. It was here that I began to see big gaps between academic research and what was actually being implemented on the field—even though the consequences of improper concussion management can be severe. So, HeadCheck Health is really a spinoff company that emerged from these gaps we identified.

Rosina: Coming from a healthcare academic background myself, I know that the consequences of improper concussion management can be immense, both in the short and long term. However, I think that the implications may be generally misunderstood, or perhaps even misaligned with the objectives of many sports teams. This can include focusing on getting athletes back on the field, especially when no subs are available—as I’ve experienced myself. How does HeadCheck Health ensure that athletes receive the concussion care they need?

Harrison: HeadCheck Health helps translate best practices and modern concussion testing to help ensure athletes get appropriate care but also to ensure that the team is doing what they are supposed to be doing [for the injured athlete]. For example, if an athlete sustains a concussion and the team does not manage it properly—if it fails to remove an athlete from the field or returns them too early before recovery—this can lead to serious health consequences along with notable legal and financial consequences for the team. Our software system helps teams more easily provide the care their protocols call for, as well as identify if and where there’s been noncompliance to prevent it from happening again. The result is that the athletes get the care they need, and the team has reassurance that they’re providing it.

Rosina: I can see how the ability to track and reward good behaviour plays a critical role in compliance.  What kind of clients do you currently have? Are they mainly recreational or professional leagues?

Harrison: HeadCheck Health has been implemented in about 800 organizations, ranging from little leagues, community teams, as well as professional sports, including the CFL, BC Hockey, the Canadian Olympic Volleyball team, among others. Every athlete deserves appropriate care and that’s what our technology really strives for.

Rosina: How does HeadCheck Health’s technology ensure that coaches and team managers are facilitating the best care for their athletes?

Harrison: This is the part that I’m really excited about. It’s the core of the company, really. Our digital platform can be accessed from a phone, tablet, or computer, and the software helps organizations execute mandatory concussion protocols, which include running tests, data monitoring, management, and clearance. Essentially, it is an ‘all-in-one tool’ that allows you to not only take action when an incident happens but also monitor and manage an injury after the fact. This is a completely novel and unique approach. The tests are stored for athletes, coaches, and even offer parental view, depending on what’s appropriate under privacy laws and the consent given by the athlete.

Rosina: I can see how this would certainly help mitigate liability and ensure that coaches and officials are not rushing athletes back onto the field, especially while concussed. How does artificial intelligence play a role in this technology?

Harrison: AI is integral because of its immense power of data analysis. That is, AI can analyze vast amounts of team data and records to determine which teams are compliant with health laws and policies and which teams are falling short. This is important not only for the health of the athlete but also from a risk-management perspective for the team, as I alluded to earlier. While we aren’t a compliance authority ourselves, AI-powered analytics and predictions help pinpoint the risks that still exist or can manifest. With this kind of information at our disposal, we can better fix and close those gaps with the technology and prevent further injuries. We’ve got a lot of data available, so we are also looking into utilizing machine learning to help improve concussion testing and diagnostic processes, in addition to tracking compliance with league policies and laws in the state or province. AI is a critical piece to support even better care in the future, for all athletes of all ages.

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