This month we talk to DHIN member and Post-doctoral Research Fellow, Dr Brad Ridout. Brad is also the Deputy Chair of the Cyberpsychology Research Group.
Can you please tell us about a day in your life?
I usually start my day catching up on emails on my morning commute to Sydney Uni. I also check twitter for the latest news in digital health and my specialist area, cyberpsychology, which focuses on the impact of technology on human behaviour and mental health. In my role as Post-doctoral Research Fellow with the Faculty of Health Science (FHS), I’m responsible for the day-to-day management and publication of a number of research projects, so every day is different. My main project at the moment is in partnership with Kids Helpline. We are developing the world’s first secure and anonymous social media platform for supporting the mental health of young people called ‘KHL Circles’. This service provides online group counselling for young people with peers of the same age who are facing similar challenges, in a safe and controlled system lead by qualified counsellors. A typical day might involve writing up preliminary results for publication, or using my expertise as a Child Psychologist to develop the interactive psychoeducation modules that counsellors use within KHL Circles to stimulate discussion about topics such as anxiety, depression, emotional regulation, resilience, family relationships, self-care and relapse prevention.
Other days I might be meeting with fellow members of the Cyberpsychology Research Group (a node of DHIN and a Research Group within the eHealth and Health Service Delivery Theme of FHS) or researchers from other disciplines such as medicine or design to discuss upcoming projects, or being interviewed by the media for comment on how social media and smartphones are impacting on our mental health and changing society (for better or worse!)
How do you define digital health?
The term ‘digital health’ means different things to different people. With My Health Records coming soon we’re hearing a lot about digital health in terms of connecting points of care in the health system, so that information can be shared to help deliver better quality healthcare. Making systems more efficient is definitely a big part of digital health, but I think it’s also about using technology to come up with innovative ways to deliver new health interventions, as well as improving the efficiency of and access to existing interventions.
In the area of mental health, we know that young people are increasingly going online to find information and support, so there is an urgent need to ensure that when they do, they have access to qualified mental health professionals who can either deliver evidence-based online interventions, or link them to traditional services. As a cyberpsychologist, I also consider digital health to include the study of how everyday use of consumer technology (such as smartphones, wearables, video games, VR, and using the internet more broadly) affects mental health and wellbeing, and how we can help people use technology to improve their lives, and mitigate against any drawbacks.
What do you think will enable digital health projects and innovations to succeed?
A digital health innovation is a bit like a state-of-the-art coffee machine – the outcome is only as good as the beans you put in! It’s no good using the latest technology if the heart of the innovation is not based on sound theory and properly evaluated to ensure that it actually works for both the client and the clinician. This is particularly the case with mental health interventions. Just because something works face-to-face doesn’t mean it will translate to the online environment – the evidence-base needs to be built from scratch, with researchers and clinicians working closely with end-users to ensure that interventions meet their needs, and mostly importantly lead to positive long-term outcomes. With KHL Circles we are taking a participatory action research approach, so we are constantly collecting feedback from users to inform improvements in the design, usability and efficacy of the service, so it can be rolled out on a large scale with a strong evidence-base.
Have you come across any surprises or challenges along the way?
I’m passionate about the potential for smartphones and social media in particular to support mental health and help address barriers to treatment such as cost, stigma, accessibility and poor mental health literacy. There are thousands of mental health-related smartphone apps and tools available, but very few of them have a robust evidence-base behind them, if any scientific basis at all. I think one of the biggest challenges facing the fields of digital health and cyberpsychology is to work with app developers to change this. One of the leaders in this field, Professor Helen Christensen, has suggested that we need a regulatory body to authenticate the claims made by apps and digital tools, in the same way that the Therapeutic Goods Administration does for medicines and supplements. This would ensure that only tools that meet a prescribed standard for safety and effectiveness would be accepted for dissemination. It would also discourage app designers from rushing out their products without first making sure that they actually bring about any benefit, and most importantly, don’t do any harm.
It should be kept in mind though that even the most reputable digital tools cannot replace professional help. They are perhaps best conceptualised as just that, tools, to make the delivery of health care more effective and efficient, and help us to reach wider populations. I think we’re gradually moving towards a time where digital health will be simply be synonymous with ‘health’, and I’m excited to be a part of this evolution.
Connect with Brad:
Cyberpsychology Research Group: http://sydney.edu.au/health-sciences/cyberpsychology
Thank you to Brad for being our August member feature!