Author Archives: RWJF Blog Team

Another reason to get your flu shot - It can help reduce antibiotic resistance

Aug 17, 2011, 2:33 AM, Posted by RWJF Blog Team

Pioneer grantee Ramanan Laxminarayan, director of Extending the Cure, recently shared his perspective on The Health Care Blog about a new study published in the July issue of Infection Control and Hospital Epidemology. The study shows that antibiotic prescriptions tend to spike during the flu season, even though influenza is caused by a virus and cannot be treated with antibiotics.

According to Extending the Cure, between 500,000 to one million antibiotic prescriptions are filled each year during the flu season for patients who have the flu and no bacterial illness. This overuse is one of the many causes of the recent spike in antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Laxminarayan proposes a simple solution to this problem – get your flu vaccine this year. If you do not contract the flu, then there is no possible way your care provider will needlessly prescribe you antibiotics to treat it.

 What are some other  ways to curtail the epidemic of drug-resistant bacteria, both during this year’s flu season and beyond? We’re interested in hearing your thoughts – leave a comment here or on THCB.

mHealth Evidence Workshop and Webinar, August 16

Aug 15, 2011, 5:11 AM, Posted by RWJF Blog Team


On August 16 the Pioneer Portfolio, along with the National Institutes of Health, McKesson Foundation and the National Science Foundation will present the mHealth Evidence Workshop in Bethesda, Maryland. This workshop, which will be shared via a free webinar, brings together individuals with diverse expertise in data analysis and experimental design to identify methods that can accelerate the evaluation of the efficacy and safety of mHealth technologies. We at Pioneer, along with many others, believe mHealth has the potential to simultaneously reduce the cost of health care and improve our health. The tremendous interest we’ve received in the event is also a great sign that we’ll have a productive day exploring the potential around design and infrastructure innovations, reality mining and plotting a direction to build upon current innovations.

We plan to use this to generate a research agenda to further guide development of the space. To register for the free webinar please visit Eventbrite. Also, be sure to check back here for a recap of the discussion and next steps. 

Interview with Philip Polgreen

Aug 8, 2011, 11:17 AM, Posted by RWJF Blog Team

 Philip Polgreen, M.D., an associate professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, and his colleagues published a study in the May 4, 2011 issue of the scientific journal PLoS ONE showing that Twitter can be used to track influenza activity. Support for the research was provided in part by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio. Previous work by Polgreen and Forrest Nelson, Ph.D., an economics professor also at the University of Iowa, includes the development of an electronic prediction market that could help public health officials forecast the timing, severity and spread of seasonal influenza and other infectious diseases. In this post, Polgreen answers some questions about the current study’s findings and implications for the future

Q: Why did you look at Twitter and influenza activity?

A: Right now, public health officials report suspected cases of the flu to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but that process can take several weeks, a lag that gives the flu an opportunity to spread. When reports of the H1N1 virus that causes swine flu started increasing, we wondered if we could tap into the Twitter stream to find evidence of an upswing in cases of the flu in real time. Twitter is a micro-blogging service that allows millions of users to send and read “tweets” on all kinds of information, including, as it turns out, useful information about people suffering from fever and other flu symptoms.

Q: Your team also found that Twitter could be used to track the rapidly evolving public sentiment with respect to H1N1. How did the team come to that conclusion?

 A: We collected and stored tweets containing key words such as “H1N1”, “influenza”, or “swine flu” that were sent at the start of the outbreak. At the start of the outbreak in April 2009, we saw a flurry of tweets, including some expressing fear about the virus. But as time went on, public health messages indicating that the H1N1 virus was not as deadly as expected kicked in and we saw a gradual decline of tweets talking about such concerns.

Q: The study also found that public interest in hand-washing seemed tied to public health messages aimed at slowing the spread of the flu. Can you explain why that finding is important?

A: If this method proves accurate, public health officials may one day use it to find out whether people understand key messages aimed at flu control and prevention. If not, they can tailor the messages to increase the knowledge of, say, the importance of hand-washing, a habit that can protect people from the flu and can contain its spread.

 Q: You also did a second analysis that used Twitter to track disease activity. Can you explain what your team found?

A: We analyzed tweets that contained the words “fever”, “flu”, “muscle aches” and other symptoms, finding that Twitter data could be used to estimate incidence of the flu in real time. In addition, we found that Tweets from people experiencing flu symptoms tracked closely with the information collected by the CDC (data that comes out two to three weeks after people report feeling sick) in both time and location. If this method of tracking disease is confirmed by additional research, public health officials could use it as an early warning of a potential uptick in flu cases in a specific geographic area.

Q: Why is early warning a critical part of protecting the public?

A: Public health officials need as much information as they can gather in order to combat the flu and other infectious diseases. With early warning that a flu strain is particularly virulent in some part of the country or is spreading rapidly in others, public health officials can ramp up production of a vaccine or push out public health messages urging people to line up for a flu shot, which can turn down the dial on the outbreak.

Q: Does this have the potential to accelerate the progress we’ve made in protecting people from the flu or other infectious diseases?

A: Yes. This is one of the first large-scale efforts to investigate if data from Twitter can be used to predict the flu or to track public interest in a disease like H1N1 influenza. Additional research will need to confirm the accuracy of this method and extend it to other infectious diseases. But if all goes well, public health officials may one day be able to tap into the Twitter stream to get real-time information that could pinpoint an outbreak’s location and show when it is starting to spread to other areas of the country. This method will not replace current disease-tracking methods but could augment existing approaches to surveillance.

Accentuating the Positives: Positive Health

Aug 2, 2011, 12:44 PM, Posted by RWJF Blog Team

What comes to mind when you think of medicine? If you’re like most people, it is preventing disease and treating them when they are sick.

But health is more than the mere absence of disease. So what if there were options for medicine beyond the prevention, diagnosis, treatment and cure of disease?

Researchers who work in the emerging field of Positive Health are exploring the possibility that people have and can develop positive health assets that keep them healthier and help them recover more quickly when they are sick. The research, supported by the Pioneer Portfolio, is taking an empirical approach to developing the field. Positive Health research explores associations between health assets -- including subjective factors like optimism, functional factors like stable marriage, and biological factors like high heart rate variability – and people’s health.

The research is starting to gain traction in health and medical literature.

  • Health Psychology published a study finding that positive psychological well-being – defined as emotional vitality and optimism – was associated with lower levels of risk for heart disease. The study re-analyzed existing data from a survey of 7,942 middle-aged men and women over five years who were measured through their responses to statements about purpose in life, mental energy and the expectation of more good things than bad to occur in the near future. Positive psychological well-being was associated with a modest, but consistent reduced risk of fatal heart disease, first heart attack or first definite angina. 
  • The European Heart Journal published a study stating that higher levels of life satisfaction were associated with lower risk of heart disease. The study re-analyzed existing data from a survey of 7,956 British civil servants who rated their satisfaction with eight domains of life: love relationships, leisure activities, standard of living, job, health, family, sex life and self. Four of these life domains—job, family life, sex life and self satisfaction—were independently associated with a 12 percent reduced risk of heart disease, as was higher overall life satisfaction.
  • The journal Stroke published a study linking higher levels of optimism to lower risk for stroke. The study assessed 6,044 American adults for optimism and tracked their incidence of stroke. Participants rated items such as “In uncertain times, I usually expect the best” on a six-point scale, resulting in an overall score between 3 and 18. Each unit increase in optimism correlated to a 9 percent decrease in stroke risk during a two-year follow-up period.

Positive Health changes the way we think about health and health care—it reframes the goal of our health care system from treating and preventing disease to building more robust health. This  innovative approach to health and well-being  promotes people’s positive health assets—their strengths that can help protect against disease and lead to a healthier, longer life. The focus is not on prevention or treatment of disease, but instead on building an individual’s “good” assets that are desirable in their own right.

With the support of the Pioneer Portfolio, Martin Seligman, Ph.D., project director and director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and a team of researchers are working to identify these assets. If identified and validated, the next step would be to design potent, low-cost approaches to enhance well-being and help protect against physical and mental illness.

Support for this research is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio through a grant, “Exploring Concepts of Positive Health."

Follow the growing research this team is building on Positive Health.

The Perfect Job For You or Someone You Know! Pioneer Team Seeks Communications Officer

Aug 1, 2011, 11:30 AM, Posted by RWJF Blog Team

Our team, the Pioneer Portfolio of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is hiring a Communications Officer. This is an exciting opportunity to help lead a dynamic, diverse team focused on seeking out and supporting ideas that have the potential to transform health and health care and accelerate change, leading to dramatic improvements in people's lives. The full job description is posted on our website. This person will also play a key role in our enterprise level programming efforts at RWJF.

As followers of Pioneering Ideas, we thought you might know people who embody the "Pioneer" spirit – strong candidates who can help ensure Pioneer succeeds in supporting ideas that change the way we think about health and health care. We'd be grateful if you could share the news throughout your networks — email it, tweet it, post it to your Facebook page, or call that perfect candidate whom you would like to personally recommend. All applications are due by August 10.