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Author Archives: Lori Melichar

Using Social Data to Build Our Evidence Base

Jul 16, 2015, 2:22 PM, Posted by Alonzo L. Plough, Lori Melichar

Social media offers an exciting opportunity to innovate in health research—but the social data sandbox could use more players to conduct research, share datasets, and generate ideas about what we should be studying.


What do our tweets reveal about our health? What can we learn from Twitter about the health of those in our community? Can analysis of Twitter activity help predict an epidemic like the flu weeks before a community is inundated with cases?

Nicholas Christakis, director of the Human Nature Lab at Yale University and Thomas Keegan, Deputy Director of the Yale Institute for Network Science are conducting pilot studies in San Francisco and Boston to explore these questions and more. With funding from RWJF, Christakis’s lab uses Twitter posts that include mention of flu symptoms to map how the virus spreads outward from individuals to family, friends, and others in their social networks. This mapping method, which identifies central “influential” individuals, offers the possibility of early detection of the flu and therefore early intervention to prevent its spread. In addition to giving health officials and medical personnel a valuable head-start in responding to and preventing the spread of contagious illness, this kind of insight could also help people make decisions about their own behavior, including getting flu vaccines and being more diligent about hand washing.

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What’s the Airbnb for Health? Pioneering Ideas Podcast Episode 9

May 27, 2015, 4:47 PM, Posted by Lori Melichar

The rise of the sharing economy could surface new innovations in health and health care. The latest episode of the Pioneering Ideas Podcast explores this idea and more.

RWJF Pioneering Ideas Podcast Editorial Art

Could the ideas behind Airbnb — a service that lets people share their homes with strangers — transform health and health care?

Airbnb is just one example of a company that’s emerged as part of the sharing economy (also referred to as the “collaborative” or “peer” economy), an ecosystem of companies all over the world that are fueled by collaborative consumption:

Named by TIME as one of the “10 Ideas That Will Change the World”, collaborative consumption describes the shift in consumer values from ownership to access. Together, entire communities and cities around the world are using network technologies to do more with less by renting, lending, swapping, bartering, gifting and sharing products on a scale never before possible. From Airbnb to Zipcar to Taskrabbit, collaborative consumption is transforming business, consumerism and the way we live for a more fulfilling and sustainable quality of life.” – collaborativeconsumption.com

Rachel Botsman, an expert on the sharing economy whose TED talk on the subject has been viewed nearly a million times, recently visited the Foundation as part of our What’s Next Health series of conversations with pioneering thinkers. In an email to staff after her visit, she observed that, “to date, there has been a lack of dialogue and actionable insights on the potential to apply sharing/collaborative economy principles to different aspects of health.”

This is not to say that there aren’t examples of collaborative consumption addressing aspects of our lives that are related to health. Take the example Rachel shared with me of Landshare, a company in the United Kingdom that matches people who want to grow food with people who have the space for a garden. Imagine transforming vacant lots in some of the poorest areas of our country into places to grow fresh fruits and vegetables; the sustained effect on Americans’ health and wellbeing could be profound.

The founders of another company, Cohealo, observed that so much health care equipment sits idle for over half of its lifetime, accessible only to a finite group of professionals working in a single location. By encouraging sharing within and across facilities, Cohealo has the potential to decrease costs and waste.

Rachel joins us in the latest episode of our Pioneering Ideas podcast to explain the rise of the sharing economy and to brainstorm how new additions to the movement may help solve some of the thorniest challenges in health and health care. Could your company apply the sharing economy to the ongoing challenge of helping others lead healthier lives?  What are you willing to share to help build a culture of health in America?

Listen below or on iTunes – and, in the spirit of the episode, we hope you’ll share it, too, with anyone you know who’s passionate about building a Culture of Health.

More stories in this episode:

  • Reimagining Medical Education: Discover how emerging technologies and approaches are powering collaboration within and between medical schools;
  • Exploring Agile Science: Explore how “agile science” seeks to rapidly discover and test the most effective paths to healthy behavior change;
  • A Personal Essay on Personal Data: Learn why grantee Gary Wolf of Quantified Self believes access to our personal health data is essential to building a true Culture of Health.

After you listen, share your thoughts below, or join the conversation on Twitter at #RWJFPodcast. And if you have cutting-edge ideas to share about building a Culture of Health in this country, I hope you’ll reach out to me at @lorimelichar or consider submitting a proposal.

Be well.

Lori Melichar

Lori Melichar, a labor economist, is a director at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation where she focuses on discovering, exploring and learning from cutting edge ideas with the potential to help create a Culture of Health. Read her full bio.

Wellness in a Networked World: Pioneering Ideas Podcast Episode 8

Mar 16, 2015, 10:28 AM, Posted by Lori Melichar

RWJF’s Pioneering Ideas Podcast explores cutting-edge ideas with the potential to build a Culture of Health. Subscribe on iTunes.

I’m speaking at SXSW this week, the annual festival in Austin, Texas, that brings together creative people from a range of fields to share ideas, many of them related to technical innovation. As I mingle with these innovators, it feels appropriate to be sharing the latest episode of our podcast, which explores how technology can promote well-being by connecting us to our essential self, what our knowledge of social relationships—and social media—can mean for how we design our communities, and how institutions can create organizational cultures where health and socially conscious innovation thrive.

I hope you’ll give it a listen, then join the conversation using the comments below or on Twitter at #RWJFPodcast. And if you’re also at SXSW and have ideas to share about building a Culture of Health, I hope you’ll reach out to me at @lorimelichar.

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Some Unconventional Approaches to Stress: Pioneering Ideas Podcast Episode 7

Jan 29, 2015, 7:00 PM, Posted by Lori Melichar

(Please note that this podcast player might not work in some versions of Internet Explorer. Please view this page in another browser, such as Chrome, Firefox or Safari. You may also access the episode via SoundCloud.)

A man asking for money on the subway this week told me how Hurricane Sandy led to a series of events that left him stressed out by the challenges of putting food on the table for his children.

Recessions, hurricanes, violence—how many ways can we count that add stress to our lives? Whether dealing with economic stress, the stress of caring for an aging parent, or even the stress of keeping up with email, research shows that all of it affects our health. As Alexandra Drane, a guest in the latest episode of RWJF’s Pioneering Ideas podcast, puts it: “When life goes wrong, health goes wrong.”

This episode of the Pioneering Ideas podcast explores unconventional approaches to tackling stress­—and other health problems—with energizing possibilities that could also transform health and health care. From monitoring electricity use as a way of helping the elderly stay in their homes, to measuring the indirect health effects of social services (what if heating assistance led to greater medication adherence?), these conversations offer cutting-edge ideas for building a Culture of Health.

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Bringing in Diverse Perspectives to Build a Culture of Health

Sep 24, 2014, 9:00 AM, Posted by Lori Melichar

Susannah Fox Susannah Fox, RWJF Entrepreneur in Residence

Entrepreneurs start from a place of passion, then work tirelessly to make others see their vision. I'm excited to announce that Susannah Fox will be pushing all of us at the Foundation to behave more like entrepreneurs.

This month, Fox began a new role as the Foundation's next entrepreneur in residence. She was previously an associate director at the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, where she combined traditional survey research with field work in online patient communities. She excels at using data and storytelling to compel policymakers, consumers, and entrepreneurs to understand and discuss key health care issues.

To build a Culture of Health in the United States, we have to consider new approaches and ways of thinking. We need the creativity, imagination, and efforts of people from a range of backgrounds and industries to develop innovative solutions to our most pressing health and health care challenges. A health and technology researcher and trend spotter, Fox will be a valuable asset to these efforts.

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What's Next Health: Jammed Up: Is Too Much Choice Bad for Our Health?

Sep 4, 2014, 2:28 PM, Posted by Lori Melichar

Too Many Choices

Each month, What’s Next Health talks with leading thinkers about the future of health and health care. Recently, we talked with Sheena Iyengar, Inaugural S.T. Lee Professor of Business at Columbia University, about navigating the thousands of choices we make daily – and the stress that comes with making so many decisions. In this post, RWJF Director Lori Melichar reflects on Sheena's visit to the Foundation.

Each of us makes choices constantly and those choices reverberate across other aspects of our lives. By choosing to read this blog, you’ve chosen to place something else on hold.

Depending on the time of day you read this, you have likely made hundreds of distinct choices today...from choosing to hit snooze one...or two, or three times, to choosing what to eat for breakfast, where to park and whether to take the stairs or the elevator in your office or home.

I don't have to tell you that so many of the choices you have made in the last 24 hours already will affect your health, your bodies (those of you who had green smoothies for breakfast are probably feeling a little better than those who, like me, had a muffin), as well as your mental health (how many of you, like me, are regretting your decision to stay up to watch another episode of The Americans instead of getting eight hours of sleep?). Many of the choices you make are simple, but many are extremely complex. 

The emerging science that helps us understand why we make the choices we do—and how to influence those choices—is equally complex.

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In a Culture of Health, People Get the Sleep They Need

Aug 11, 2014, 9:52 AM, Posted by Lori Melichar


How can we help people get more sleep?

I asked that question in a blog post back in February. Since then, I’ve been actively exploring the area of sleep health. I’ve talked with researchers, behavioral economists, physicians and mindfulness experts. I’ve talked with people who think they get enough sleep, and people who think they don’t. I’ve talked with anyone I can to discover what we need to know and do in order to help Americans sleep.

Sleep has tremendous ripple effects on our overall health and well-being. Lack of sleep affects your brain. There’s evidence that it affects your working memory. And as any new parent will confirm, we don’t need research to tell us that those who are sleep deprived are less able to control their tempers.

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Reflections on TED2014: Ideas Worth Spreading … FASTER!

Apr 18, 2014, 2:11 PM, Posted by Lori Melichar

Pattie Maes on the TED2014 stage. Pattie Maes, MIT Media Laboratory, speaking at TED2014

When people find out I work for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, they often want to tell me their idea for solving the problems that keep Americans from being as healthy as they can be. It's one of the pleasures of my job. Some of these ideas are indeed pioneering,  with the potential for breakthrough change.  All of them are helpful in shaping my vision of a path to achieving a Culture of Health.

I heard a lot of ideas last month while representing RWJF at TED2014. If you aren’t familiar, TED is an organization dedicated to spreading ideas through inspiring talks and conversations. Their annual conference is a great place to meet leaders from a variety of disciplines, from science and technology to business and the arts, and it was a privilege to attend.

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How Can We Help People Get More Sleep?

Feb 12, 2014, 8:00 AM, Posted by Lori Melichar

Hairdresser sleeps outside his shop. Hairdresser takes a break during work. Image courtesy of epSos.de.

How’d you sleep last night?

Like many Americans, I’m a mother of small children. And like many Americans, I have a full time job with a long commute, from New York City to Princeton, New Jersey. Like too many Americans, I don’t always get as much sleep as I need to do a good job as a mother or as a program officer here at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

So when WNYC recently asked me to participate in a roundtable discussion about sleep with Dr. Shelby Freedman Harris and Dr. Carl W. Bazil, I hesitated; clearly, I’m no expert on the subject. But I’ve spent a large part of my career in the Foundation’s Department of Research and Evaluation, where we support research into the root causes of poor health and explore how we can accelerate improvements in health and health care. And as I thought about the studies we’ve supported over the years on behavior change and other research I’ve encountered, I realized that much of it might shed light on the national challenge of sleep deprivation.

What follows are the thoughts I shared at the WNYC panel. I’d be thrilled to hear what you think might work.

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Persuading People to be Healthy: Thoughts from a Healthspottr Innovation Salon on Microtargeting

Jan 24, 2014, 8:00 AM, Posted by Lori Melichar

Lori A. Melichar Lori Melichar, director

If we're going to create a Culture of Health in this country, then we need to re-examine our influence strategies. In other words: We need to get better at delivering the exact right message or intervention that is most likely to get someone to take action that improves their health, their family or friends' health or the healthiness of their community. And that means we need to get better at microtargeting—applying the vast amounts of data available about people's habits and preferences to identify who is most persuadable.

I recently co-hosted an RWJF-funded Healthspottr Innovation Salon focused on the subject of microtargeting, where I met Ricky Gonzales of Enroll America and Erek Dyskant of BlueLabs, both of whom were on the Obama campaign's data analytics team. They talked about how they used microtargeting during the campaign and how those innovations may apply to health, something you can read more about in articles from The New York Times, Mother Jones, and the Wall Street Journal, among other sources. When I observed that several approaches they described might have applications for health and health care, Dyskant said, "Influencing people to make healthy decisions is much harder than getting someone to vote in a single election."

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