Interview: Dr Annie Lau, Research Fellow, Centre for Health Informatics, AIHI, UNSW

Dr Annie Lau is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Health Informatics (CHI), Australian Institute of Health Innovation, University of New South Wales, where she leads CHI’s research program in Consumer Health Informatics.

The aim of this program is to provide empirical evidence on how E-Health and online social technologies affect the way consumers make health decisions, manage their health, and influence their health behaviours and outcomes.

She has qualifications in Health Informatics (PhD UNSW) and Software Engineering (BE Hons I UNSW). Her research interests lie in the design, development, evaluation and analysis of E-Health systems for healthcare consumers and patients. She is also interested in investigating the impact of social media and online social influences on health.

We spoke to Dr Lau about her speaker session at the CeBIT eHealth conference about “How eHealth affects the way consumers make decisions and manage their health − Results from multiple empirical studies”.

She told us that:

“My research interests lie in the field of Consumer Health Informatics. Basically that is about understanding how patients and consumer can make the best use of information to inform their health, and where technology (or e-health) can play a role. The aim of my research is to provide empirical evidence on how E-Health and online social technologies affect the way patients and consumers make health decisions, manage their health, and influence their health behaviours and outcomes”.

“My specialized knowledge lies in designing trials to measure the impact of e-health and online social technologies on patients and consumers. We use both controlled studies (such as usability studies, online laboratory experiments) and real-life pragmatic trials (such as randomized controlled trials, prospective cohort studies, feasibility studies, and open trials) to measure and study this impact”.

“We also design consumer health ICT applications, with an emphasis on how we can use E-Health to improve individuals’ engagement with health services, and how to improve the interaction between patients and clinicians inside and outside consultations”.

“One of the applications we have developed at UNSW with a team of software engineers is Healthy.me, which is a web-based personal health management system, as well as an e-health research platform. I will be showing screenshots of Healthy.me at the CEBiT conference, and also provide empirical findings from studies we have conducted using this platform, ranging from the support of women undergoing infertility treatment, to encouraging uptake of influenza vaccine among young people”.

Case Study – Using Youtube for Health Purposes

Dr Lau said that besides the empirical findings she will be showing on Healthy.me, she will also be presenting a case study on the safety concerns patients and consumers face when accessing videos on YouTube for health purposes.

In particular, five areas regarding the safety of YouTube for consumers have been identified.

These include

  1. harmful health material targeted at consumers (such as inappropriate marketing of tobacco or direct-to-consumer drug advertising);
  2. public display of unhealthy behaviour (such as people displaying self-injury behaviours or hurting others);
  3. tainted public health messages (i.e. the rise of negative voices against public health messages);
  4. psychological impact from accessing inappropriate, offensive or biased social media content; and
  5. using social media to distort policy and research funding agendas.

Trends in eHealth

Dr Lau explained that:

“The “Science” of Consumer E-Health is often overlooked – a quick look at the trending topics show that the PCEHR is what is occupying minds in my industry at the moment. Worldwide, governments have made multi-billion dollar investment in e-health to modernize health services delivery, with many questions still unanswered about the uptake, benefits, and cost effectiveness of these investments”.

Finding approaches that effectively engage consumers in e-health, that address pressing needs among patients and consumers, without increasing the workload on clinicians and pressure on health services, remains a priority.

However, there is a lack of a “systematic” approach to guide the design of consumer e-health systems that would encourage uptake among patients, consumers and clinicians. For this reason, unpacking the features and factors that drive effective online engagement remains a crucial area for future research.

Online “Crowd” influence and Social media for Health – in addition, there is a lack of understanding about how online social influences or the impact of the “crowd” affects the way we make health decisions, our health behaviours and our health habits and outcomes.

Social media is increasingly being used, however the impact of how/whether social media affects the way consumers perceive their health and make health decisions is unknown. Social media (e.g. videos, games, blogs, mobile applications, and social networking sites) may overcome many of the reading and writing barriers people experience due to limitations in their health literacy.

However consumers are likely to experience harmful effects when accessing social media that is unsafe, especially when the social media content is easily accessible. We need more empirical studies to understand the impact and extent of social media use among consumers for health purposes.

There is also a growing trend that social media is being adopted and used by clinicians, especially by younger clinicians, for both personal and professional purposes. As young clinicians bring their personal ‘habits’ of using social media into their professional setting, could we be anticipating an increase in posting of unprofessional content and breaches of patient confidentiality? How can we safeguard against this?

Learn more from Dr Annie Lau at CeBIT Australia’s eHealth 2012 Conference on 23 May 2012.