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Vancouver-based HeadCheck aims to improve accuracy concussion assessments

New app allows medical personnel to perform concussion assessments on the sideline or bench before deciding whether or not an athlete is ready to resume playing after taking a hit to the head.

HeadCheck’s new app shows results from a balance test as part of a concussion assessment.

Photo courtesy of HeadCheck Health

HeadCheck’s new app shows results from a balance test as part of a concussion assessment.

Harrison Brown has particular interest in ‘Concussion’, the movie that portrays Dr. Bennet Omalu and his battle with the NFL after exposing the connection between chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and repeated head trauma in football players.

The movie, which features Will Smith in the starring role as Dr. Omalu, is in local theatres beginning Christmas Day.

“It’s good to have people aware that this actually happened but whether the details are true … I suspect they’ll downplay how bad the NFL was,” said Brown, a PhD student at UBC and co-founder of the Vancouver-based company HeadCheck Health.

“I think a lot of people that maybe aren’t interested in sports and … maybe don’t know about concussions, they’ll actually be able to relate to it and get an idea for how big of a problem … how serious this actually is.”

HeadCheck launched a new app designed to allow medical personnel of a sports team to perform concussion assessments on the sideline or bench before deciding whether or not an athlete is ready to resume playing after taking a hit to the head.

“What we want to do is provide athletic trainers and other team medical staff with an opportunity to perform accurate and reliable concussion assessments,” said Brown.

There are three components of a concussion assessment, said Brown, that include a symptom questionnaire, a neurocognitive test and finally a balance test.

“Balance is considered to be among the most critical of them because it’s the only one that can’t really be cheated,” said Brown.

Under the previous form of a balance test, the trainer would stand in front of the athlete and ask them to perform certain balancing acts – stand on one foot, for example – and they would look to see if the athlete was making any errors, said Brown.

“The idea of using human judgment for a clinical test is something we’re moving away from in society because there is differences between people grading and also people that are grading the same test twice,” he said.

“What we’ve done is remove the human aspect of it.”

With the HeadCheck app, athletes asked to perform a balance test, as part of a concussion assessment, would wear a headband containing a small sensor that is wirelessly connected to the app.

“It collects data during the balance test and then it’s run through an algorithm, which gives them a much more accurate score.”

The app then presents a number, on a scale of zero to 60, which Brown says is more reliable than the number a human would provide. The higher the score, the worse a subject’s test is.

The team’s medical personnel would then compare that number from the assessment with the baseline test the athlete in question goes through at the start of a season.

The company’s website states that with the app, an accurate concussion assessment could be completed in less than five minutes.

Brown said that with human judgment in grading a balance test, medical publications have shown there to be about a 50 per cent chance of error on any given test. With the HeadCheck algorithm, Brown said the accuracy rate of balance tests range between 90 to 95 per cent.

“The relevance of it is when you’re performing this assessment, you actually have data that is accurate and so then it allows (team medical personnel) to make a better decision,” he said.

Kerry Costello, co-founder of HeadCheck and an MBA graduate from the UBC Sauder School of Business, said 31 Canadian sports teams currently use HeadCheck.

She said that includes two Western Hockey League teams and teams from three different universities, ranging in sports from rugby and football to soccer and volleyball.

“Anybody who's got that … vulnerable age, this would be a huge tool, a huge advantage for them,” said Costello.

“Now, that said, we’re not there yet. One of the pieces of the puzzle is getting teams that have team doctors or athletic trainers … getting them to use it and provide us with feedback so we can continue to facilitate making it easier for the general public.”

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