AI-powered software to improve public health outcomes in underserved communities

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The COVID-19 pandemic has been a struggle for many students. But for Kareem Jelks, the pandemic has fueled his passion to help others, especially those in underserved communities.

Jelks, who earned a degree in cybersecurity analytics and operations from Penn State's College of Information Sciences and Technology last week, has spent the past year creating software that helps minority populations with healthcare needs.

Kareem Jelks Credit: ProvidedAll Rights Reserved.

Through a partnership with the University's Project Reach and involvement with the Nittany AI Challenge, Jelks co-created — with John Keeling, a student in the College of Engineering — Reach.AI: a supply chain management tool powered by artificial intelligence that analyzes the social determinants of healthcare of the Hispanic and Latino communities in rural Pennsylvania.

The tool potentially could be leveraged by healthcare social workers to raise awareness of these disparities, as well as by healthcare supply chain managers to improve the supply chain process. Initially, Jelks’ primary aim was to devise a mechanism to prioritize COVID-19 vaccine distribution to the most vulnerable. However, due to the estimated surplus of vaccine availability across the nation, Jelks has since pivoted his scope to address the diseases of despair and other issues that vulnerable populations are facing across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Some of the risk factors he will include for Reach.AI are food insecurity, life expectancy and early childhood development.

“COVID has significantly impacted society as a whole,” said Jelks. “Though the pandemic is seemingly coming to an end, it has showed us that the vulnerable populations will continue to be impacted the most due to the social determinants of health. The Reach.AI team wants to be a part of the solution for promoting improvements in healthcare for all.”

Jelks got the idea for Reach.AI when he participated in HackPSU in fall 2020. In that competition, he worked on a project that leveraged crisis management software for healthcare, then expanded on that concept to develop the framework for Reach.AI.

Jelks received assistance from the team at Penn State REACH Project, which stands for Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health and is a national program of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that aims to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in healthcare. Together with Jennifer Kraschnewski, associate professor of medicine, pediatrics, and public health sciences at Penn State College of Medicine; and Andrea Murray, REACH project manager, Jelks identified needs within the community and ultimately selected Hispanic and Latino populations as the groups on which to focus.

Leveraging the IBM Cloud and IBM Watson, Jelks created the software which allows him to upload code and do statistical modeling to identify specific trends. He is currently working on refining his prototype to showcase to the Penn State REACH team. Jelks has outlined a roadmap for Reach.AI that states he will have a minimum viable product ready by August 2021.

“Healthcare workers that are heading supply chain initiatives need to know which suppliers have products available,” said Jelks. “Right now, we're focusing on addressing the need to save time and cut costs for healthcare organizations that lack the proper funding to improve their decision-making by leveraging AI.”

Jelks said he intends to make Reach.AI a nonprofit organization soon, following his involvement in the Nittany AI Challenge in which his team was one of 20 selected to compete in the prototype phase. The team will continue to complete a minimum viable product this summer to compete for a prize pool of $25,000. Jelks’ continued participation in this competition and other entrepreneurial opportunities at Penn State have provided him with valuable opportunities to learn new skills.

“The people within the technical community appreciate what I'm doing and recognize the importance and the impact of what Reach.AI aims to accomplish,” said Jelks.

He added, “Healthcare is so important. With digitalization and machine learning, healthcare can be more accessible. I aim to have Reach.AI accessible to everyone; that's what I care about most.”

Last Updated May 12, 2021