Researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center have commenced two projects to improve maternal and mental health in low- and middle-income countries by harnessing information technology and social media.
The first, led by Eric Caine, M.D., chair of the Department of Psychiatry, will train researchers from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Mongolia to use mobile technology and social media to discern when populations are under mental stress.
The second, led by Timothy Dye, Ph.D., professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and director of biomedical informatics at the university’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute, and Deborah Ossip, Ph.D., professor of Public Health Sciences and Oncology, will train teams from Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, and Honduras to use information and communication technologies to address in-country maternal health problems.
The projects are each supported by three-year $300,000 grants from the Global Health Research and Research Training eCapacity Initiative from the National Institutes of Health’s Fogarty International Center. The grants were limited to physicians and scientists who had previously received grants from the Fogarty International Center, and URMC is one of only two institutions in the country to receive multiple grants.
“As we move in to the era of big data, we are very well positioned to be a leader in biomedical informatics and data science,” said Stephen Dewhurst, Ph.D., vice dean for research at URMC. “These two projects really build on the research strengths we already have in place.”
Caine’s group, which includes Vincent Silenzio, M.D., co-director of the Laboratory of Informatics and Network Computational Studies, will train four researchers annually at the University of Rochester Medical Center.
The training program will focus on the use of mobile technology and big data to improve mental health; one potential application would be a program that scours Twitter for certain keywords that signal a population is under more mental stress than usual. The first four trainees arrived in late June.
“Next year, they’ll come back with four more trainees, and we’ll pair them up,” said Caine. “This way, we can mentor the mentors in addition to training the new people.”
Dye and Ossip’s project, which is called MundoComm, will attempt to improve maternal health, which has stagnated in some Latin American countries in recent years. Their program will provide online and in-country training on the use of information communication technology to help improve the health of women in pregnancy. Community-based field teams will use this training to develop and field test maternal health projects, while receiving mentorship from the MundoComm team.
“If there’s a problem with breastfeeding in a particular community, then a team of people — a clinician, a data technician, and an outreach worker, for example — would come in and learn how to use information technology to tackle it,” said Dye.
Both projects leverage the partnerships and connections that the researchers had previously made in Asia and Latin America. Caine’s project builds on the Asia-Pacific International Research and Education Network, while MundoComm closely involves several of Dye and Ossip’s former trainees from Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic who once studied in Rochester and are now in faculty positions themselves.