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A passport to pregnancy

Toronto, March 5, 2014

By Geoff Koehler

(From left to right) Social worker Amanda Hignell; Natasha James, former My Baby and Me Passport Program patient; and Marisa Cicero, coordinator of the passport program.
(From left to right) Social worker Amanda Hignell; Natasha James, former My Baby and Me Passport Program patient; and Marisa Cicero, coordinator of the passport program.

No one looking at Natasha James would consider her part of an older generation.

But James, 22, recently found herself lamenting that a piece of technology wasn’t around “in her day.”

“I had a great experience with the original passport so I don’t want to say ‘this passport is way better’,” said James. “But it’s WAY better.”

The passport in question isn’t government-issue; it was created by St. Michael’s Hospital and acts as a portable health record to help keep track of appointments and health information and serves as an important tool to educate young mothers.

James’ version of the passport was a paper document, but social workers Amanda Hignell and Marisa Cicero found a way to convert those pages to pixels and created a smartphone app to complement the original.

“Our patients – who are mostly under 25 – may forget to bring their passport to appointments but they’re never without their cell phones,” said Hignell. “Despite these young mothers’ financial situations, most do have a cell phone or smartphone.”

The program tried to develop an app in the past but estimated costs were between $20,000 and $40,000.

In November, when the two social workers heard about Toronto’s Hacking Health event, they saw an opportunity to meet with software developers and realize their dream – for free.

“The people at Hacking Health really latched onto this project,” said Cicero, who is also coordinator of the passport program. “We were able to find amazing developers to create the smartphone passport for Android and Windows phones and the app is now available on both platforms.”

James had no stable home and was “couch surfing” during her pregnancy.

“Sadly, Natasha’s case is not unusual,” said Hignell. “About 300 infants are born to homeless women in Toronto every year.”


Features of the app:

  • A countdown leading up to delivery date

  • Links to local community resources such as shelters, pregnancy resource centres and where to find free meals with built-in GPS mapping to help them find these or health care services

  • Timelines about what to expect in their pregnancy and when to expect it

  • Notes so that women can remember to ask all of the questions they have for their health care provider between visits

The My Baby and Me Passport Program program has been serving young women like James at St. Michael’s since 2010 and includes practical support services and incentives such as TTC fare and grocery vouchers. Its crown jewel is a prenatal booklet called the My Baby and Me Infant Passport that helps to reduce risks and improve psychosocial and health outcomes for young, homeless moms and their babies.

“We created the passport with our inner city population in mind,” said Cicero. “We wanted the program to specialize in helping these at-risk mothers to be as healthy as possible.”

The app doesn’t require any personal health data to be collected or stored and protects the privacy of the young women who participate.

James had her child before the app was developed, but as a fan of the program she was given an opportunity to review the app for Cicero and Hignell.

“I wish I’d had this app when I was pregnant,” said James. “I’d use it and think anyone who is having a baby would. It’s easier to read than What to Expect When You’re Expecting and it fits in your pocket.”

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in 27 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael's Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.