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New Research Network to Explore How Digital Media Can Improve Brain Health and Joint Health

May 22, 2014 By Crissy Campbell

Digital media has become an essential tool in mobilizing and enabling ordinary people to be engaged with their health care professionals and in the management of their own health. To explore this further, a new research network has just received funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to explore how digital media can be used to improve brain health and joint health in older adults.

The network, Improving Cognitive & Joint Health Network (ICON), has been given $199,000 per year for the next three years to explore how to optimize mobility independence in seniors.

The principal investigator on the network is Linda Li, an Associate Professor at the Department of Physical Therapy at UBC, a Senior Scientist at the Arthritis Research Centre of Canada, and Canada Research Chair and Patient-oriented Knowledge Translation. The network is made up of 9 investigators and their research programs from across Canada, including CDM director Richard Smith, as well as 4 consumer health organizations.

Brain and joint health are essential for good quality of life and can be fatal if not treated properly. Although there are effective prevention and treatment options, adoption has been slow and there’s an opportunity for digital media tools to improve the use of effective strategies. 

I spoke with Linda Li over Skype a few weeks ago about the network’s goals, how digital media and the Master of Digital Media program fits in with the network and the current state of the digital health industry.

1. First off, congratulations on your grant! Tell me about ICON.

Our network’s focus is on improving brain and joint health—two of the body’s most important organs.

We know that mobility improves one’s quality of life and that there are ways to treat brain and joint health. For example, being physically active is good and early treatment is important for slowing down diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.

So the knowledge is there but it's not being used. For example, less than 50% of people are physically active. There are also issues around people not seeing doctors early enough or people have the medication, but they have concerns around using it. 

We're bringing together nine leading research and academic groups across Canada who are experts in brain and joint health, digital media, computer science and knowledge translation.  These investigators have extensive connections in their fields and, collectively, we're going to come up with solutions to use the existing knowledge on arthritis and cognitive health to improve health and quality of lives of older adults.

2. What's the overall goal of ICON? 

The goal of the network is twofold: to improve the mobility of older adults and to improve preventative measures to promote brain and joint health.

3. Can you explain a bit more about how Digital Media fits in with the network?

It's still in the early stages. We need to explore how to best use digital media but we're hoping to find cutting edge areas in digital media that will help with our goals. For example, ICON could support projects that create and test user-friendly apps and devices for motivating and monitoring physical activity level for people living in the community. This is only 1 example. The ICON will welcome suggestions and collaborations for future projects.

4. How does the project fit with the Centre for Digital Media and the Master of Digital Media program?

CDM has been one of the key academic institutions involved in the network. In the past, we've collaborated on MDM student projects and student internships.

With ICON, we will create internships for students. There are lots of opportunities—students could develop the concept for a tool or actually develop the tool—depending on our needs and the students’ skillsets.

And, of course, Dr. Richard Smith has been a key investigator in the network. We will not only benefit from his leadership but his expertise in digital media and communication technologies. He can help and provide guidance in a variety of areas,   from product design to testing and deployment.  

5. If I was a student thinking of going into Digital Health, what is the current state of the Digital Health industry?

eHealth is in its infancy, which means that it's really exciting. So far, the eHealth industry has mostly focused on health records and information, and a limited use of digital monitoring tools, but there's so much new technology we need to explore—games, social media, and ways digital tools can help people communicate with health professionals. 

Most health professionals know that the tools are out there, but often they're either not user-friendly or they’re not assessable to the people who need them most. 

The opportunities are rich. Digital media experts know the latest technology. We, as health professionals, have the clinical knowledge and access to user groups who can provide feedback on the design and user-friendliness. In sum, there are great opportunities to collaborate and develop tools. Together, we can help build better products.