Six inspiring Louisville, Kentucky, middle school girls are developing an app to help ensure Alzheimer’s and dementia patients remember to take their medications.
The Meyzeek Middle School seventh-graders recently became one of eight teams to win the prestigious Verizon Innovative App Challenge, earning $20,000 for their school’s STEM learning and a chance to bring their app to life with the help of Massachusetts Institute of Technology coding experts.
The girls’ concept, Pharm Alarm, sends alert messages to patients when it’s time to take their meds – if they forget, family members and doctors are immediately notified.
Ellie Tilford, 13, spearheaded the project after witnessing her mother’s struggle to help her grandfather, who suffered from dementia, remember to take his pills.
“My grandfather has since passed away, but I’m certain this would have helped him. My mom worried about him taking his medications because we lived in a different state,” Ellie tells PEOPLE. “I did this in his honor. He didn’t realize how much help he needed in the long run. I think he would have been thankful and proud.”
Ellie was assisted by Smrithi Balasubramanian, 12, Mayukha Bhamidipati, 13, Francesca Campisano, 13, Shreeya Julakanti, 12, Mia Mercer, 13, and their sixth grade science teacher, Carrie Wilson.
“I started to tear up because we had worked so hard on this app and for it to become a reality and to win this big national competition was great!” Shreeya tells PEOPLE of being named a finalist by the Verizon Foundation.
Verizon’s director of education Justina Nixon-Saintil says the girls’ concept was selected from a pool of 1,200 applicants this year.
“[Pharm Alarm] is innovative, I’m not aware of any ideas that provide this service in the app store right now,” Nixon-Saintil tells PEOPLE. “We thought it was unique and loved that there was a familial connection. These girls are solving a challenge that many people have.”
“Pharm Alarm’s is based around a calling mechanism,” Francesca tells PEOPLE. “If a user doesn’t take medication, the app sends out a pre-recorded message to three emergency contacts. If none of these contacts respond in a set amount of time, their doctor is called.”
The app also features a pill log, which allows caregivers to scan in medicinal information through a pill container’s labeled barcode, and a compliance graph for doctors to measure what percentage patients are taking their pills and attending doctor appointments.
At it’s core, Pharm Alarm is intended to keep families informed and safe.
“This is pretty much a tribute to honor my grandfather,” says Ellie. “Even though he’s gone, this app has helped me hold on to my memories of him and he will live on through this app.”
Wilson, the team’s mentor, said the girls worked for six weeks to develop Pharm Alarm.
“They stayed after school on Fridays and interviewed experts to ensure they were mapping out exactly the best kind of technology that would suit a patient’s needs,” Wilson tells PEOPLE. “I really think this is a brilliant idea.”
The young tech-enthusiasts spoke with M.D. Board certified neurologist, Dr. Madhuri Vallabhuni, about best practices, from a medical standpoint, on developing their app.
“For patients that use smartphones, this will be great! It’s a good opportunity for families to track their medications and appointments,” Dr. Madhuri tells PEOPLE. “As a doctor, it is also useful to understand a patient’s digression. If they miss things more frequently, you are able to tell when and at what pace things are getting worse.”
The girls will begin working with experts from the Center for Mobile Learning at the MIT Media Lab to code their app, which will be available for download in Google Play in June.
“We are hoping to help people in the long run,” says Ellie. “We hope our app will inspire other young, innovative and creative minds to help our future generations.”