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Digital Health at the 2019 Society of Behavioral Medicine Conference

By Emma Norris, on 21 March 2019

By Allison A. Lewinski – Durham Center of Innovation to Accelerate Discovery and Practice Transformation, Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, USA

The Society of Behavioral Medicine conference occurred from March 6th-9th, 2019 in Washington, DC. The theme of the conference was “Leading the Narrative.”

I attend the SBM annual conferences because my research focuses on eHealth interventions and chronic illness self-management and is at the intersection of precision medicine and population health. My interest is in promoting health equity by identifying individuals at high risk for adverse health outcomes due to social and environmental factors and then creating tailored population-level interventions to improve health outcomes.

A sign of a good conference is when you have trouble deciding which sessions to attend! This year, like the previous SBM conferences, I found it challenging to decide which sessions to attend because there were so many sessions relevant to my current research interests. One of my favorite parts about SBM is looking at the SBM Conference App and the SBM Pocket Program and denoting all the presentations and posters I want to visit! I met so many interesting people throughout the conference and had so many great discussions about chronic illness and digital health research. Below, I highlight my four take-aways since I am unable to write about all the interesting sessions related to digital health.

1. Digital health is here to stay. I was impressed at the vast amount of research being completed using various types of digital health in all types of settings. I think this is because digital health tools facilitate social interactions among patients, the patient’s family members and friends, and healthcare providers. Susannah Fox (@SusannahFox) gave the Opening Keynote on Thursday morning. Her talk, “Heath and Technology Megatrends: How You Can Anticipate the Future.” Her talk was engaging and informative and she discussed how people navigate healthcare and chronic illness using the Internet so as not to feel alone. These individuals search for and find, or create if necessary, communities in which to exchange disease-related support.

2. Digital health data provides useful insight into health behaviors. Digital health tools enable researchers to collect vast amounts of data, and researchers in academia and industry need to be purposeful about data collection and data analysis techniques. I am interested in unique data collection methods and either using, or developing new when necessary, analysis methods, so I attended several paper sessions that discussed using data collected from Twitter, YouTube, wearables or sensors, and other digital health tools. These sessions analyzed both qualitative and quantitative data collected, and I was struck by: how the researchers collected these data, what methods these researchers used to analyze these data, and how these data informed the research question. These specific talks highlighted how these data collected from digital health tools provides insight into the patient’s actions in the real world, specifically the barriers and facilitators to engaging in health promoting behaviors. Sessions that stuck out to me included:

·         Rebecca Bartlett Ellis, PhD, RN, ACNS-BC, Indiana School of Nursing (@DrBartlettEllis)—”Development of a Decision-Making Checklist Tool to Support Selecting Technology in Digital Health Research.” She stressed the importance of being aware of participant burden with healthcare devices—specifically, what are we asking participants to do with their health technology? What are the potential risks and benefits of using mobile apps and pervasive sensing devices in health research?

·         Camella Rising, PhD, RN, National Cancer Institute—“Characterizing Individuals by mHealth Pattern of Use: Results from the 2018 NCI Health Information National Trends Survey.” She examined the non-users of mHealth and defined five categories of use. She stated that these results can help describe a pattern of mHealth use which can help improve mHealth intervention design.

·         Philip Massey, PhD, MPH, Drexel Dornsife School of Public Health (@profmassey)—”Advancing Digital Evaluation Methods: Use of Publicly Available Online Data to Measure Impact of Global Health Communication.” He examined YouTube comments from episodes of a TV series. I found it fascinating how he identified a unit of analysis (e.g., an original post) and developed a codebook to examine this narrative data.

·         George Shaw, PhD, University of North Carolina at Charlotte—”Exploring Diabetes Topics Using Text-Mining Approaches: Supporting Quality Control of Health Information in Digital Spaces.” He examined data from Twitter. He described how he used the Twitter API to obtain data with hashtags and keyword searchers. He also described how he developed the unit of analysis (e.g., an original tweet) and then used two different text-mining techniques to analyze the data.

3. Health communication is essential for anyone in research. One unifying theme throughout the conference was promoting health communication to the public. I attended several sessions on how behavioral medicine researchers were working to increase the awareness and impact of evidence-based research in the larger community. As researchers in a variety of settings (e.g., academia, industry, government) we have the power to impact the narrative regarding health behaviors. We can help increase knowledge about chronic illness, correct mis-information, and connect patients with healthcare providers or peers by promoting evidence-based research. Dr. Sherry Pagoto, PhD, University of Connecticut (@DrSherryPagoto) at her Keynote, “Leading the Narrative: Bringing Behavioral Medicine to the Masses” discussed the importance of getting out there and promoting good science. She talked about how important it was to disseminate research in various areas such as Twitter, using Podcasts, and other forms. Essentially – be purposeful, proactive, and deliberate about disseminating your research findings!

4. Patients are a valuable resource and asset to the digital health community. The most impactful session I attended while at SBM occurred on Saturday morning. The Master Lecture Panel, “Beyond Tokenism: How Patients are Impacting Research, Advocacy, and Healthcare Delivery” included: Tamika Felder, Cervivor (@Tamikafelder); Cyrena Gawuga, PhD, Boston University (@ceginpvd); and Dana Lewis, BA, OpenAPS (@danamlewis); and was moderated by Emil Chiauzzi, PhD, PatientsLikeMe (@emilchiauzzi). These three individuals discussed how they became involved in research and advocacy as patients, and how they were impacting healthcare delivery for themselves and their communities. I was amazed at how they co-created communities using the Internet and how they used digital health tools to maintain these communities in order to share information and support. Each woman discussed how they, and their respective communities, used various digital health tools to identify information, exchange support, and disseminate meaningful research findings!

Overall impression. I enjoyed attending SBM due to the many conversations I had with other researchers who used digital health tools to improve health and wellness in individuals. I urge you to attend the next SBM conference in 2020! I leave you with some questions to ponder regarding the use of digital health tools and contact me with any questions or comments: @allisonlewinski!


Questions to ponder:

  • How can we ensure rigorous research is completed using digital health tools?
  • What role should scientists and researchers have in ensuring evidence-based information is in the media? How do we combat ‘fake news’?
  • Patients have powerful voices—how can we as scientists amplify these patient voices in all aspects of the research process?
  • How are you disseminating your research? Who are you talking to? Where is the information going? What is the language you are using?

Links to check out:

SBM conference attendees were encouraged to add their presentations and posters to the Center for Open Science meetings database. Check out the uploaded presentations and posters here: https://osf.io/view/SBM2019/

There were lots of live conference Tweeters at SBM. Check out the hashtag #sbm2019 to see what was discussed!



Allison A. Lewinski, PhD, MPH (@allisonlewinski) is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Durham Center of Innovation to Accelerate Discovery and Practice Transformation (@DurhamHSRD) at the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. Funding information: Support for Dr. Lewinski was provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Academic Affiliations (TPH 21-000), and publication support was provided by the Durham VA Health Services Research Center of Innovation funding (CIN 13-410). The content is solely the responsibility of the author and does not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, or the U.S. government.



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