By Greg Basky
Dr. Tarun Katapally can’t think of a better tool than the now-ubiquitous smartphone for engaging people of all ages in solving population health issues, whether that’s mental health problems among youth, or frailty in seniors.
“What does everyone have these days? Everyone has a smartphone. It’s an incredible tool to reach out to people, and it provides a voice to even the most vulnerable populations,” says Dr. Katapally, a population health researcher and associate professor at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Regina. ”We are able to engage participants in near-real time across the world using this platform (SMART). They are our citizen scientists. They are equal partners. We share our data with them and we cocreate the knowledge with them.”
Through the SMART platform developed by Dr. Katapally, research participants enter information – the level of stress or anxiety they’re experiencing for example, or a barrier they’ve encountered in trying to be physically active – into a custom designed app on their smartphone. Besides collecting data, that same platform can, in response, also deliver behavioural interventions or connect citizens to health-care services. SMART is the underpinning or infrastructure for the Digital Epidemiology and Population Health Laboratory, DEPtH lab for short, that Dr. Katapally established in 2017.
“I GUESS THAT’S WHAT BROUGHT ME TO THE RESEARCH AREA WHERE I’M ACTUALLY ABLE TO USE MY CREATIVITY TO THINK LATERALLY ALMOST EVERY DAY. I NEEDED THE FREEDOM TO CREATE SOMETHING RATHER THAN, SHALL WE SAY, BE DESKBOUND, OR EVEN HOSPITAL- OR CLINIC-BOUND.”
Dr. Katapally describes his novel research as working upstream from health-care delivery in order to inform policy – across human services, not just health – that can prevent people from going to hospital. “Most of my work is related to the health of populations and I use technology and advanced methodological tools to prevent people from getting sick,” says Dr. Katapally, who in March 2019 received a Patient-Oriented Research Leadership Grant from the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation and the Saskatchewan Centre for Patient-Oriented Research. “So what that does is it improves the quality of life of populations, and also minimizes the economic burden downstream.”
Shifting gears from clinician to researcher
Dr. Katapally, who practised emergency medicine for three years, says his lane change from clinician to researcher happened organically. Although he didn’t recognize it at the time, he sees now that he needed the “creative space” he didn’t find as a physician. “I guess that’s what brought me to the research area where I’m actually able to use my creativity to think laterally almost every day. I needed the freedom to create something rather than, shall we say, be deskbound, or even hospital- or clinic-bound.”
Digital age a game-changer for researchers Dr. Katapally hopes his work has a lasting impact on two levels. The scientist part of him would like to see researchers up their methodology game. “We need to change the way we do research in the digital age. Otherwise, you’ll get left behind.” He feels the SMART platform is a great example of what’s possible on that front. The researcher and advocate side of him hopes to minimize inequities among different populations, by addressing gaps between high and low income populations. “For example, the work we do with Indigenous communities and youth is looking at how we can reduce the gaps that exist between Indigenous youth in rural and remote areas and urban youth – whether it’s mental health, physical activity, or addictions. That’s the kind of work I’m most interested in.”