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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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Disaster Alerts at the Speed of Sound

Jun 3, 2014, 1:31 PM

Millions of people have now seen their phone shake and heard it wail with news of an impending tornado or other disaster. Two years ago the wireless industry rolled out a free service known as wireless emergency alerts, and wireless carriers representing more than 98 percent of subscribers agreed to participate.

People with older phones, however, may not be able to access the alerts. Brian Josef, general counsel for the CTIA—The Wireless Association in Washington, D.C., recommends checking for the capability when buying a new phone and. For your current phone you can check with your carrier’s customer service office to see whether you automatically get the alerts.

People who can’t receive the texts, or who want a double layer of information, can sign up with local emergency management offices and get alerts via phone, text, email  and in some cases Twitter—although sessions at a Preparedness Summit in Atlanta indicated that while Twitter is growing, it is still not used by many local and state health departments. Check the bottom of your health department home page to find the Twitter handle, if there is one.

Josef also points out that you may find that a neighbor got an alert and you didn’t—but that’s because the alerts are geo-targeted. If you and your neighbor were a few miles away from each other when an alert went out, only the one in harm’s way would get pinged.

And if you’re in the market for preparedness apps, the American Red Cross and the National Hurricane Center have free apps that provide alerts and help you track storms.

But the apps won’t do you much good if your phone loses its charge. Preparedness experts recommend keeping a charged extra battery and portable charger on hand, and some emergency radios also include phone/device chargers.

Other tips to conserve your smartphone battery, according to Mary Clark, Chief Marketing Officer of the mobile technology company Syniverse, include:

  • Reduce the brightness of your screen
  • Close unnecessary apps
  • Use text messages to communicate with friends and family
  • Send an initial text to those most important detailing your plans
  • Turn off unneeded options such as Wi-fi and Bluetooth

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.

Breaking Down Barriers to Access in Social Media

Mar 31, 2014, 1:32 PM

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) and the National Council on Disability (NCD) have established a virtual town hall conversation to examine the accessibility barriers of social media for individuals with disabilities. The town hall, which will continue through Friday, April 4, is the first in a series of three online events on the topic of social media accessibility that will take place over the next three months.

Social media is a critical tool for engaging customers, employees, jobseekers and stakeholders. When it is inaccessible to people with disabilities, a large portion of the population is excluded from important conversations. Advancing Accessibility and Inclusion in Social Media—The User Experience aims to identify the barriers to social media use and develop solutions to help ensure that all people can reap the benefits of social media and digital services.

Town hall participants are able to discuss personal social media experiences; submit comments and ideas; and vote on suggested solutions to accessibility barriers. Participants have shared feedback regarding a variety of social media platforms: Calling for captioning on government-produced Vine videos, seeking recommendations for using social media to find employment and suggesting increased accessibility training for social media developers. ODEP and NCD will use insights gleaned from the town halls to work with the social media industry to improve experiences for Americans with disabilities.

"We anticipate that this online discussion will present new and exciting opportunities for Americans with disabilities and people around the world,” said Janni Lehrer-Stein, chairperson of access and integration for NCD. “Social media opens up a new marketplace of ideas and access for everyone, including people with disabilities, adding value and providing new opportunities through inclusive engagement in the virtual world."

To participate, register at ODEP’s ePolicyWorks town hall and submit your feedback.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.

Social Media and Hurricane Sandy: Q&A with Jay Dempsey and Vivi Abrams Siegel

Nov 7, 2013, 3:11 PM

Hurricane Sandy made landfall last year during the American Public Health Association’s (APHA) annual meeting in San Francisco. Several sessions at the annual meeting this year in Boston, one year after the storm, focused on the response during the hurricane that killed dozens, injured hundreds and destroyed thousands of homes.

In a key session Monday, communications specialists from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported on a study of new media preparedness and response messaging implemented before and after the disaster. As Hurricane Sandy approached landfall, the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH) assisted state and local public health partners by developing and sharing storm-related messaging across several social media channels, including an SMS text subscription service to directly reach people affected by the storm.

CDC determined what topics would need coverage each day, ranging from preparing for the storm's arrival to post-storm safety and clean-up. Once messages were posted, they were retweeted across several CDC Twitter feeds and on social media channels of local health departments. The recent CDC study found that leveraging social media turned out to be very important for driving a steady increase in traffic to CDC emergency response web pages. For example, a message about safe clean-up of mold produced 14,881 visits. The number of NCEH Twitter followers also increased—there were 4,226 twitter followers at the beginning of October before the storm, and that grew to 5,215 followers—a 23 percent increase—once the storm hit.

>>NewPublicHealth was on the ground throughout the APHA conference speaking to public health leaders and presenters, hearing from attendees on the ground and providing updates from sessions, with a focus on how we can build a culture of health. Find the complete coverage here.

Ahead of the APHA meeting, NewPublicHealth spoke with Jay Dempsey, a health communications specialist in the National Center for Environmental Health who presented the data at the APHA meeting and Vivi Abrams Siegel, a health communications specialist in the CDC Office of Public Health Preparedness and Emergency Response about the findings and the growing importance of social media before, during and immediately after disasters.

NewPublicHealth: What’s most important about the recent study on social media and disaster preparedness and response?

Jay Dempsey: The case study is an overview of the lessons that we learned from using social media to disseminate emergency and preparedness messaging ahead of and during and immediately following Hurricane Sandy. Some of the things that we knew going in during the response to Hurricane Sandy was that a growing number of people are using social media to get information just before and during a disaster or an emergency. So knowing that, we leveraged our social media channels and the first thing we saw was a pretty substantial increase in web traffic. We’re able to track the number of page visits that come exclusively from social media and make a determination of approximately how much social media drove traffic to those particular pages.

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Building and Maintaining a Quality Health Department Website

Aug 6, 2012, 2:27 PM

At last month’s NACCHO 2012 conference, Susan Feinberg, MPH, communications specialist with the Cambridge Public Health Department in Massachusetts, led a discussion on the importance of a strong and reliable web presence for local health departments.

“Your site is the virtual face of your health department,” said Feinberg. “It’s your number one communications channel and anchor for everything you do.”

With more Americans relying on the web as their means of accessing resources and information, it’s more important than ever for local health departments to create and maintain sites that provide real benefits to the public. Among the aspects Feinberg highlighted, a quality health department website should help users locate services, provide a place to share feedback, as well as discuss how the department is using grants and funding.

A well-built department website provides many benefits to public health practitioners, as well, including streamlining permitting and licensing procedures, amplifying the reach of local staff and promoting credibility for the department.

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Surgeon General's Healthy Apps Challenge: Winners Announced

Feb 22, 2012, 7:33 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

Winners of the Surgeon General’s Healthy App Challenge were announced late last week, after the challenge launched earlier this winter at the mHealth Summit. The goal of the challenge was to highlight the ability of innovative new technologies to provide health information tailored to the needs of the user, and empower the public to regularly engage in and enjoy health-promoting behaviors.

>>Read more about the value of challenges to promote innovation from HHS Chief Technology Officer, Todd Park.

"I've been delighted with the response to the challenge," said Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, MD, MPH. "The winning apps will help many Americans to have fun while getting fit and healthy."

The applications were assessed by a team of judges that included figure skater Michelle Kwan and Shellie Pfohl, Executive Director of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition. Criteria used to assess the apps included:

  • usefulness
  • innovativeness
  • quality of evidence supporting the app’s approach to healthy behaviors
  • usability
  • ability to tailor and download personal data
  • the “fun” factor

In addition, all the apps submitted for review had to be available on readily accessible platforms, free for consumer use and fully operational without the purchase of additional products.

And the winners are...

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Expanding the Breadth of Health Research Covered by the Media

Feb 16, 2012, 4:07 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

This week’s plenary at the AcademyHealth annual National Health Policy Conference focused on the media’s role in health policy and featured Austin Frakt of The Incidental Economist (which is supported in part by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation), Ezra Klein of the Washington Post and Merrill Goozner of The Fiscal Times. Frakt, a health economist, touched on virtually all of the points the speakers made during the one hour session, in a post on his blog the day of the plenary. Most important perhaps was that researchers need to do more than just issue a press release in order to disseminate their results. “I encourage researchers to get involved on Twitter and blogs. Promote the work of the community when it is timely and relevant,” wrote (and said) Frakt. Ezra Klein, who has an extensive following, invited researchers to email him and not shy away because they think he might be inundated. “Let me manage my inbox,” Klein said.

NewPublicHelath spoke with Frakt about the role of social media in reporting critical health information.

NewPublicHealth: Your training was not in health. What did you do before and did you get into the health field?

Austin Frakt: My training is in physics and engineering. I went through a PhD program in electrical engineering at MIT, and although what I was really doing was kind of applied math, I recognized during my studies that I really was interested in questions pertaining to policy. So I did finish my PhD, and the math and the rigor of it was valuable. I was intrigued by [health policy work at Abt Associates] and that’s where I ended up. It wasn’t that I was, at the time, particularly drawn to health, I just wanted to do something in the policy direction and I was particularly drawn to a rigorous, mathematical kind of evidence-based study.

NPH: And what made you focus on health policy?

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CDC on Your iPad

Feb 13, 2012, 5:53 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently launched an iPad version of the agency’s website. Carol Crawford, chief of the Electronic Media Branch at CDC, says the app, which is free, has been downloaded well over 5,000 times so far and has been well received.

What’s the advantage to all that content on a tablet? Joseph C. Kvedar, MD, founder and director of the Center for Connected Health in Boston, says, "these devices are always connected," and the mobility of the iPad is well suited to the CDC’s site, which often has late-breaking news on outbreaks and disease for consumers and health professionals. The information can be accessed more easily on the go in "tablet form." Kvedar says that while many iPad apps have been launched just as "gee whiz" sorts of features, accessing medical information on an iPad app can have a "just-in-time" feel that enhances accessibility and usability. And moving quickly among options such as podcasts that refer to a news item, or news that relates to a journal article—which the iPad app allows—can make it easier for users to take advantage of CDC’s many resources.

There are also tabs that give users quick access to social media channels (Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube) and CDC will also be creating original content for the iPad app.

A key advantage to an iPad app for health professionals is that it’s very similar to reading a page of a printed journal, and reduces the need to tote the paper copies or print out pages. That’s a view shared by Dr. Kvedar and Howard Bauchner, MD, the new editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, who talked about that benefit in an interview with NewPublicHealth last year.

The CDC iPad app is also easily shareable by health professionals with patients to point out studies, guidelines and news. That shareable use of iPad content was highlighted frequently on the exhibit floor at the mHealth conference held outside Washington, D.C., late last year.

Weigh In: What advantages have you found to accessing CDC or other health data via iPad rather than on a computer?

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.

Up to the Challenge?

Jan 19, 2012, 6:10 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

Todd-Park Todd Park, HHS Chief Technology Officer

Got a good idea for a health app or health innovation? The health agencies of the U.S. government want to know. Since 2009, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has invited citizens and tech and health experts, to submit their ideas for new health apps or strategies to help improve population health outcomes through open "challenges."

A recent challenge, still open to contestants, comes from the Office of the Surgeon General, deemed the Healthy Apps Challenge, to help provide tailored health information and empower users to engage in healthy behaviors. Another challenge from the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology asks entrants to create a video of two minutes or shorter on how to use technology to achieve a New Year’s health resolution.

Ashoka Changemakers and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation have created a challenge called Innovations for Health: Solutions that Cross Borders, with a goal of finding “health care innovations that have the potential to be adapted and applied in different countries experiencing similar barriers to health” – with a focus on both individual health and prevention at a population level. The challenge is particularly looking for new approaches or unique models of change that demonstrate a substantial difference from other initiatives in the field, and for solutions that have demonstrated impact and help vulnerable and under-served populations. The cash prize for the challenge is $10,000 each for up to three winners, and the deadline for ideas is February 13. (From among the entries, the Foundation will also be looking for ideas that show potential to help produce significant improvement in health and health care in the United States).

Why issue a challenge rather than a request for proposals in order to find solutions to so many critical health problems? NewPublicHealth recently asked just that of Todd Park, Chief Technology Officer of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

NewPublicHealth: Health challenges are garnering quite a few contestants, judging by the traffic on the websites. Why are they such a good option for exploring new health solutions?

Todd Park: The challenges are a terrific way to engender innovation for a variety of reasons. One, they tend to attract both usual suspects and unusual suspects. So folks who may have highly complementary expertise or experience in other sectors are now applying their expertise for the first time to help solve a health or health care problem. In fact, the emerging academic literature on challenges in general indicate that the people who win the challenges tend to be, the majority of the time, folks who are unusual suspects; folks who actually come from other sectors who are applying their expertise for the first time to a problem in the sector from which the challenge is being issued.

And another reason why they tend to be – when done well – very successful engenders of innovation is that it’s a very broad-based response that you get. So as opposed to say a procurement where you ask a single organization to come up with the answer to a given question, you’re basically asking the planet for an answer to a question or a solution to a problem, so you get many more responses that are much more diverse than you would get from a narrow solicitation.

NPH: Is there a challenge winner from a non-health sector whose submission blew you away?

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mHealth: Updates from the Exhibit Floor

Dec 7, 2011, 6:46 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

The one sure thing about the mHealth summit is that this is a field still in its early days. But attendance of first-time exhibitors Verizon, Qualcomm and AT&T, who each showed some new health monitoring apps and connectivity systems, was good news for the industry and the conference. More important, says Tom Brewer, project manager at the Northwest Regional Telehealth Resource Center, is the opportunity these big companies bring in helping smaller telecommunications systems fit into their larger networks. Brewer says that expanding telehealth and mHealth opportunities could improve connectivity and access for consumers in areas where broadband is limited.

Numbers underscore the nascent phase of the mHealth field. At a session yesterday on the value of mHealth, attendees were reminded that a month after download, only 6 percent of public health apps are still in use. From a business model, the purchase is completed. But from a public health standpoint, the promise of the app for diabetes or glucose monitoring, or calorie counts or smoking cessation, for example, has largely been lost, says Brewer. At least one app firm on the exhibit floor confirmed those numbers. A million of their apps have been downloaded in the last four years, but only 7 percent are still in use.

Yvonne Hunt, PhD, MPH, of the National Cancer Institute says that simply underscores the need for testing and evidence so that apps are designed with best practices and remain in use. (Read our Q&A with Dr. Hunt.) One way to increase use might be with automatic updates to downloaded apps, an option from several firms and a good question for providers to research before recommending an app.

Technology to watch:

  • Cffone—mobile website for kids with cystic fibrosis that helps connect patients with each other and encourages adherence to treatment regimens.
  • NIH alcohol consumption app that will be launched in early 2012—lets users key in the alcohol type and portion size in their drinks so they can see if they’re exceeding recommended daily limits and track their intake over time. Drinkers are often unaware of how much alcohol they’re consuming in a day or month, of the risks it can pose, such as impaired driving, exacerbated health concerns and drug interactions.

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