Author Archives: Deborah Bae

Can Virtual Reality Make Us More Empathetic?

Jun 29, 2016, 2:00 PM, Posted by Deborah Bae

Virtual reality is proving to be a tool to help build the human capacity to care about the realities of others—something that’s needed to tackle social issues like homelessness.

A man tests out a virtual reality headset. Photo Credit: Maurizio Pesce/ Flickr via CC by 2.0

San Francisco media took the unprecedented step of putting aside competitive interests and devoted an entire day of coverage to the issue of homelessness in the Bay Area. Frustrated at inaction over the city's homeless crisis, local newsmakers have flooded the airwaves and filled pages of newsprint to focus attention on the problem and potential solutions.

Homelessness is not just something San Franciscans are struggling with. On any given night, over 1/2 million people in the U.S.—including children and families—are homeless, according to the National Alliance to End Homeless.

Tackling tough issues like homelessness requires empathy. Having empathy for those in need is a vital first step toward action. We’ve seen events that enable people to “walk a mile” in the shoes of a homeless person be effective at helping build understanding and compassion for the homeless. But what would it mean if people could walk a virtual mile in another’s shoes? Could the immersive nature of virtual reality help us reach more people and build lasting empathy?

Working with researchers at Stanford University, that’s exactly what we hope to find out.

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What's Next Health: New Microbiome Health Research Puts the ‘Cell’ Back in Cell Phone

Jun 24, 2014, 12:13 PM, Posted by Deborah Bae

What’s Next Health guest Jessica Green, founding director of the BioBE (Biology and the Built Environment Center), visited RWJF last year to discuss the health implications of the microbiome—the invisible collection of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and archaea that live on, in and all around us. Watch Jessica’s What's Next Health interview to learn more about microbiomes in the built environment and how that knowledge can be used to design spaces and buildings to create a healthier, more sustainable world.

During her visit, Jessica led an educational workshop where staff swabbed their fingers and mobile phones to learn about the relationship between the microscopic communities living on both. The findings from that educational workshop turned out to be quite interesting, and ultimately led to a study published today in the journal PeerJ. Senior Program Officer Deborah Bae caught up with Jessica to learn more about her research.

Deborah: When we hear the term microbe, many of us think about germs that cause disease. So what is the microbiome, and why is it important in promoting health?

Jessica: Twenty years ago, when I was an environmental engineering student, I learned that microbes were pollutants or contaminants, and were something that you wanted to eliminate, particularly in the indoor environment. And we know from history that being in a very unclean, unsanitary environment kills people. What we’ve learned more recently is that for every human cell, we have up to ten bacterial cells and even more viruses living on the human body. There's a rising consensus that aspects of this microbiome can be beneficial to human health. Some of these microorganisms help our immune system function, ward off pathogens and infections, and microbes in our gut may be even linked to the way that we think and feel.

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Behavioral Economists Compete: Innovation Tournament on Health

Dec 4, 2013, 5:30 PM, Posted by Deborah Bae

Meeting participants collaborate at a behavioral economics workshop. Participants at the Innovation Tournament

Through a series of small grants, the Pioneer team is exploring the utility of applying behavioral economic principles to perplexing health and health care problems—everything from getting seniors to walk more to forgoing low-value health care.

At a recent meeting in Philadelphia, held in conjunction with the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics at the Leonard Davis Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, we challenged these grantees to compete in an Innovation Tournament.

The goal was to identify testable ideas that leverage behavioral economic principles to help make people healthier by working with commercial entities. Participants were assigned to groups and made their best pitches to their colleagues. And of course we used a behavioral economics principle (financial incentives) to increase participation: Each member of the first, second and third place teams received Amazon gift cards.

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Positioned for Transformation: Expanding the Scope of Health Care

May 18, 2012, 10:58 AM, Posted by Deborah Bae, Jane Isaacs Lowe

In the Stanford Social Innovation Review’s “Realigning Health with Care,” authors Rebecca Onie, Paul Farmer and Heidi Behforouz express their collective belief that—in the United States—we need to expand our understanding of the scope of health care, where it’s delivered and who delivers it. They also make it clear that the time to do so is now if we are going to confront our country’s rising health care costs, primary care physician shortage and expansion of the ranks of those living in poverty or hovering just above it. 

Onie, Farmer and Behforouz also propose that we need to look beyond our shores and borders for models for how to do so, pointing out that “in the developing world, there is no choice but to design health care systems that account for limited financial resources, scarce health care professionals and significant poverty.” 

We couldn’t agree more.

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Introducing Innovations for Health: Solutions that Cross Borders

Nov 14, 2011, 8:28 AM, Posted by Deborah Bae

At RWJF, we’re focused on solving the most intractable health and health care challenges in the United States, but we recognize that innovations come from all over the world and that many effective health solutions are emerging with the potential for immediate adaptation, replication and impact. That’s largely because, despite their differences, many countries throughout the world face a surprisingly similar set of health care challenges.

In today’s interconnected world, we have an important opportunity to learn from each other – especially when a new idea has the potential to make a difference in a big way. For example, the New York Times recently released a special section, “Small Fixes,” which focused on low-cost health care innovations to improve global health. The small fixes ranged from simple, self-adjusting eyeglasses for those who don’t have access to optometrists to the sophisticated, Gates-funded “postage stamp” paper to detect liver disease nearly instantaneously—the samples don’t have to be sent to a laboratory to be processed.

The innovation that most caught my interest in this article was one in Mozambique that organized patient groups to take turns picking up their medications, thereby forming strong social bonds, reducing stigma and increasing adherence to antiretroviral drugs. The organized patient groups also reduced the burden on health care workers while increasing patient engagement and self-management of care. Some consider this “small fix” a potential game changer for HIV care.

What’s striking about many of these solutions is that they highlight the universality of health problems faced throughout the world, such as lack of preventive care, provider shortages and rising health care costs. And, while most of the solutions are geared towards solving health problems outside of the United States, with some imagination, I believe many of these fixes could easily improve people’s lives in our country.

It’s this desire to accelerate change by tapping into unconventional thinking around the globe that led the Pioneer team to partner to launch the Innovations for Health: Solutions that Cross Borders competition with Ashoka Changemakers. We’re looking to find solutions to these universal health care issues, and are most interested in those that have potential to:

  • Increase capacity and training for health care workers and providers;
  • Scale low-cost interventions to increase access to medical, preventive, or dental care;
  • Reduce barriers to health information and services;
  • Provide high-quality care in non-traditional settings; and
  • Engage patients directly in their care, particularly those managing chronic illnesses.

We’re thrilled to seek these global health care solutions and hope you’ll check out the competition, learn more about the three $10,000 prizes, and share the link with your network of pioneering thinkers. And why not submit an entry yourself, nominate an organization to compete, or comment on the submissions? We can’t wait to see what ideas you might have.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.

The Need for More Randomized Controlled Trials in U.S. Social Policy Interventions?

Feb 17, 2010, 3:45 AM, Posted by Deborah Bae

Esther Duflo, a development economist at MIT, gave a thought-provoking talk at TED on using randomized controlled trials to study the impact of anti-poverty interventions in developing countries. Instead of trying to answer the big, controversial question, “Does (international monetary) aid work?” Duflo tries to answer smaller, local questions that provide insight to the big question.  For example, mosquito nets are highly cost-effective for preventing malaria, but they’re not being used widely.  Duflo wanted to know why and whether cost had something to do with it.  Are poor villagers more likely to use mosquito nets if they have to buy them (at a low, subsidized price) versus getting them for free?  Her research showed it’s more effective to give the nets away for free. 

What’s most appealing about Duflo’s research is that she’s able to show what works (or doesn’t) and she can back it up with data.  Randomized controlled trials are the gold standard- for example, the 1971 Rand Health Insurance Experiment is still cited today, yet, they’re not extensively conducted on U.S. social policy interventions (with the exception of education) primarily due to cost, ethical issues, and complexity of the research design.  Knowing what works would ensure that scarce funds are directed towards those policies that have meaningful, lasting impact to improve the lives of millions of people.

Duflo’s talk raises some important questions: When is appropriate to conduct randomized controlled trials in U.S. social policy?  Should we conduct more randomized controlled trials in health and health care to understand which interventions work and to invest in? Or are randomized controlled trials too controlled, localized, unrealistic and infeasible?

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.

Super-empowered, Hopeful Individual.

Feb 17, 2010, 12:50 AM, Posted by Deborah Bae

This is a phrase  Jane McGonigal, game designer, used to describe the type of individual she believes gaming can produce. But the term is also fitting for what I feel right now after attending TED2010. I listened to some of the most intelligent, passionate speakers on a broad range of issues — from zapping mosquitoes (Nathan Myhrvold) to suspended animation (Mark Roth). I feel super excited, energized and optimistic, but I’m left with the question, “now, what?”  Of course, I’ll talk about TED with friends and colleagues in the coming days and I might use for computational type searches, or download Andrew Bird’s album — but is that it?

One talk that feels “actionable” is Esther Duflo’s presentation on using randomized trials to study the impact of anti-poverty interventions in Africa.  Instead of trying to answer the big, controversial question, “Does (monetary) aid work?,” Duflo tries to answer smaller, local questions that provide insight to the big question. For example, mosquito nets are highly effective for preventing malaria, but they’re not being used widely. Duflo wanted to know why and whether cost had something to do with it.  Are poor villagers were more likely to use mosquito nets if they have to pay for them (at a low, subsidized price) versus getting them for free?  Her research showed it’s more effective to give them away for free.

While Duflo talked about global health and poverty alleviation, the concepts she talked about can be applied to the U.S. health and health care system. Instead of asking big questions like “Does prevention work?” or “Do we need universal coverage?” perhaps we can ask a series of smaller, answerable questions. 

What are some of these smaller questions that can provide insight into the bigger health and health care questions?

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.