TNS — If the winners of a national prize competition tell us anything about the American healthcare system, it's that patients are often frustrated with doctors who are oblivious to their sentiments.

Four University of Pittsburgh medical students took home the National Board of Medical Examiners competition prize -- $5,000 and the opportunity to develop their product -- with a smartphone app called TOPCATS, or Trainee-Oriented Patient Communication Assessment System. The long name describes a pretty simple concept: Patients are often less than satisfied with their interactions with doctors but don't always know how to voice their frustration.

Patients "often feel powerless about the whole situation" when they encounter less-than-ideal doctors, said Myung Sun Choi, one of the team members and a rising fourth-year Pitt medical student. Sometimes, she said, those patients take to online forums to rant, but it's not exactly constructive feedback.

So in classic millennial fashion, the med students turned to the power of their iPhones and Androids to solve the problem. TOPCATS allows both patients and students to rate how they think an appointment went. Patients are also able to give feedback on how the student performed.

Ms. Choi, along with her teammates Jennifer Hu, Abby Koff and Devan Patel, presented the app in a humor-filled presentation, complete with a video of Ms. Koff acting as a doctor with no bedside manner. The app, they said, would ask patients objective questions like: did the medical student wash his/her hands, introduce himself/herself, use easy-to-understand words, or ask how you felt about your diagnosis?

The patient would then answer a question about how he or she felt -- sad, angry, frustrated, excited, optimistic, bored -- while interacting with the medical student.

Those patient sections correspond with student sections that ask the user to reflect on the patient's emotions and complete a self-assessment about his/her overall performance. The student is also asked to reflect on how difficult the encounter was, and why.

The app would serve as a handy tool for medical students, but it will also prove a valuable database for educators who would be able to see what their students are struggling with, hear their students' thoughts, or even change the curriculum based on student weaknesses, Ms. Hu said in the group's presentation.

Let's say a student falls below a certain threshold in "purposeful silence," explained Ms. Koff, a rising second-year at Pitt. The app would identify that gap and inform the student that there are a couple of workshops going on at Pitt that might be helpful. If, for instance, professors see that only 40 percent of students are correctly identifying patients' emotions, the medical school can say,"Oh, we need to make changes to this" in the curriculum, she said.

Students already get feedback from what are called standardized patients -- actors who are assigned a specific situation and medical illness. But according to Mr. Patel, that feedback is mostly objective: Did they wash their hands and avoid medical jargon? Students are often left with a lot of unanswered questions.

The app is still only an idea and hasn't reached the prototype stage, but the team is working with the university and the National Board of Medical Examiners to develop and roll it out.

Ideally, Ms. Koff said, the rollout would begin with Pitt medical students in late 2016 or early 2017. From there, students at other medical schools, physicians and all other types of healthcare workers could begin using it.

"It's limitless," Ms. Koff said. 

©2015 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.