NOVA Award

NOVA Award

Project: Puff City I

Principal Investigator:
Christine L. M. Joseph, PhD, MPH

Awarding Institution:
American Hospital Association

NOVA Award

Project Description

In Detroit, black teens with asthma went from staying at home to avoid bullying and embarrassment to carefully managing their problem with the help of a hip radio disc jockey named Puff Man.

Black teens have a much higher rate of asthma than whites, and yet there weren't really any programs targeting that population, Detroit's Henry Ford Health System found. So they set about developing a computer program to address the problem, with help from other local institutions, including the University of Michigan. But rather than using some stuffy voice spitting medical jargon at inattentive teens, they gave it an urban vibe and a narrator who spoke their language.

"This really did help fill a gap," says Antoinette McCain, R.N., program supervisor for the Detroit Public Schools, Office of Health and Physical Education. "We still have a lot of kids with asthma. We still have a lot of children who are experiencing asthma episodes, but it did make a huge dent in helping us get those kids under control."

Puff City participants start by logging into a computer at home or school for a baseline session, followed by four more visits every week, and then a follow-up six months later. In each visit, Puff Man and other characters ask questions about the user's asthma and try to tailor the message to each participant, sort of like a personalized talk show. Someone who smokes will get completely different advice than a nonsmoker, says Christine Joseph, senior epidemiologist for Henry Ford.

"When you sit down to use Puff City, it's going to be very different than when I sit down to use it," she says.

This year marks about a decade since the program was first dreamed up. And statistics after the first year and a half show that teens who used the specialized software vs. a generic version reported fewer days and nights with asthma symptoms, fewer missed school days and fewer hospitalizations.

Now, Henry Ford is eyeing a possible version of Puff City that's geared toward Latinos. And those overseeing it wonder whether such a technology-based approach could help to manage other diseases such as HIV or diabetes, especially ones that affect young people, whose brains are wired to think through technology, says Nancy Schlichting, CEO of Henry Ford Health System.

"Clearly, the country is dealing with these same issues. The problem is not unique to Detroit, and I think in many cases the solutions are replicable," she says. "It does take leadership and it does take initiative, but there are certainly ways this can be adopted across the country."

written by Marty Stempniak in the 2012 AHA NOVA Awards Report


Award Description

The American Hospital Association honors leadership by its member hospitals and health care systems by presenting AHA NOVA Awards annually to the bright stars of the hospital field that:

  • Improve community health status--whether through health care, economic or social initiatives
  • Are collaborative--joint efforts among health care systems or hospitals, or among hospitals and other community leaders and organizations.

Awards are presented in July at the AHA-Health Forum Leadership Summit.