The Imperative to Collaborate Across Disciplines to Make It Easier to be Healthy

Jan 12, 2015, 9:00 AM, Posted by Chevy Williams

Chevy Williams, PhD, MPH, is a fellow at Experience Institute, where she is learning and applying design thinking to social problems. Williams is an alumna of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Health & Society Scholars program at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Today, we can get access to just about anything in minutes or hours. Smartphones put a world of information literally at our fingertips. Within minutes, most of us can get food we want, entertainment we desire, even travel to another city. But seeing a doctor, an arguably more immediate need, is not so easy. Creating a Culture of Health requires our collective interdisciplinary expertise to make health and health care as accessible and user-friendly as other products and services we use on a regular basis.

Before I left academia, I heard the word “interdisciplinary” tossed around a lot, but I saw it practiced in very safe ways. Typical research teams of grants I was on or would review comprised researchers from only the social, psychological, and health and medical sciences.  As public health faculty, I’d hear statements like “Public health is inherently interdisciplinary.” This may be true since public health draws from multiple disciplines, but I couldn’t help but feel that such statements were more a reflection of inertia than anything else.

Having spent years as a behavioral researcher trying to get people to change their behavior to save their own lives, I’m well aware that overcoming inertia is no small thing. The academic environment is no different. It takes time, energy, and some convincing to reach across silos and develop new collaborations. It can be a risky venture when you consider the classes, committees, projects, and students all clamoring simultaneously for your time and attention. It’s definitely much easier to collaborate with the “usual suspects” and continue making small, measured steps forward.

But to have greater and faster progress toward creating a Culture of Health, stretching beyond the usual ways of thinking and collaborating is a must.

My time on the other side of academia has been spent exploring and getting reinvigorated in other spaces, including the arts, business, social enterprise, design, and technology.  Innovation is imprinted in the DNA of these fields and all of them have interests in health and health care. For example, approximately 20 percent of social entrepreneurs focus specifically on health issues and many others focus on poverty alleviation, new education models, and workforce development—all critically important for population health. A recent visit to an accelerator’s “demo night” (where social entrepreneurs introduce their projects to the public) revealed strong interests among social entrepreneurs in having university partnerships.

Design and technology are also aptly positioned to bring the experience of health care into the 21st century. Design and technology, with their principles rooted in simplicity, accessibility, and user experience, are changing the way we do everything, including the way we manage health.

Take for example, Patients Know Best, a secure cloud-based platform that gives patients control of their own medical records, promoting care continuity. Patients Know Best was founded by a physician and former National Institutes of Health staff scientist with experience in medical software. Or take iCouch, which allows anyone to connect with a mental health professional from the comfort of his or her own couch. Relieving the burden of having to get up, get dressed, and commute for an appointment can be the difference between life and death for a person struggling with depression or other mental illness. There’s also no reason this format couldn’t be used for some primary care visits. It’s similar to telemedicine, a model that we already use that is showing promising results.

In a society with multiple demands, we have to create ways to make being healthy easier for people, and doing that demands that great minds from diverse disciplines come together to ideate, prototype, and test ways to bring health to people, rather than leaving the burden on patients.

We all know how difficult behavior change and maintenance is. The complexity of the system with its laws, regulations, politics, and players further complicates matters. By breaking out of academic comfort zones and collaborating across seemingly disparate disciplines, we have the potential to build a culture where being healthy is as convenient as streaming movies.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.