Exploring technology and community health


Exploring technology and community health

Queen’s researcher Catherine Donnelly is bringing her experience working with communities and health systems to the new Connected Minds project exploring the impacts of technology on society.

June 27, 2023


Photograph of Catherine Donnelly
Catherine Donnelly is bringing expertise in supporting integrated health systems and assessment and evaluation to the Connected Minds project.

The pace of technological change seems to be accelerating all the time, and each innovation comes with a new set of promises – and a new set of risks. Earlier this spring, the Government of Canada pledged $105.7 million from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund to support a new research initiative that will address a wide range of questions about the impacts of technology on humanity. Connected Minds: Neural and Machine Systems for a Healthy, Just Society is led by York University with Queen’s as a partner institution.

Catherine Donnelly, Associate Professor in the School of Rehabilitation Therapy, is one of the Queen’s researchers who will be contributing to the project. She works closely with communities and health systems, putting her in a position to help the research team develop an understanding of how technology affects human health, especially in aging adults.

The Queen’s Gazette recently connected with Dr. Donnelly to learn about her involvement in Connected Minds, how it connects to her other research projects, and the biggest risks technology poses to the communities she works with.

Let’s start from the beginning. How did you get involved in the Connected Minds project?

I became involved in Connected Minds through my work with Oasis Senior Supportive Living (Oasis) and my research supporting integrated health systems. I serve as the co-lead of the Oasis expansion, along with Vince de Paul, also an Associate Professor at the School of Rehabilitation Therapy. 

Oasis is a program that builds social connections through group-based programming in naturally occurring retirement communities. Oasis is driven by older adults and supported by an onsite coordinator to support older adults to age in the neighbourhoods in which they live. Oasis is an excellent example of a program Connected Minds seeks to engage with – one that is building socially connected communities for older adults. We can envision, with the support of Connected Minds, how technology can further build and deepen social connections. We have a great collaboration with Drs. Julia Brook and Colleen Renihan who are bringing in a virtual music theatre program – Rise Shine and Sing – to the Oasis communities. It is a great example of how technology can bring older adults together across Oasis communities that span the province of Ontario and Vancouver. 

My other lens that I bring to Connected Minds is through the Health Services and Policy Research Institute (HSPRI), one of four Queen’s Research Institutes affiliated with the project. Many HSPRI investigators use big health data in their research and evaluation of the health system. The Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES)–Queen’s, is housed within HSPRI and offers a comprehensive repository of administrative health data. HSPRI is also working with the Centre for Health Innovation to support the Ontario Health Data Platform–Queen’s. I envision significant opportunities for intersectoral and interdisciplinary work across Connected Minds.

Connected Minds is a collaboration between researchers across York and Queen’s, spanning many different disciplines. How does your specific expertise fit in with the project?

My PhD was in Assessment and Evaluation, and I bring a strong program evaluation lens to my health services work. In addition to my roles with Oasis and HSPRI, I’ll be bringing this expertise as the lead of the Performance Monitoring Committee for Connected Minds. I am really looking forward to working with the team to build an evaluation framework to examine the impact of such a large, inter-sectoral, multi-university grant.

This is a new team, and I am really looking forward to expanding my collaborations with researchers at York – building on their expertise and bringing diverse ways of seeing and understanding technology in our society.   

You’ve said that Oasis is well positioned to help Connected Minds understand the impact technology can have on communities. Does Oasis have any current projects that are related to this goal?

Oasis is currently partnering with Queen’s SparQ Studios Makerspace located in Mitchell Hall to start an initiative called Men’s Shed. Men’s Sheds bring together men to connect, talk, and create. They were started in Australia to address loneliness and isolation and will be a great opportunity for men in the Kingston community along with engineering students and community partners to create and build technology. In this case, technology can be anything from basic woodworking to 3D printing. We’re hoping that the older adults and the students can mentor each other in using different technologies, building social bonds among older men, as well as intergenerational bonds in the process. 

We held the first open house in June and are excited to now see it get off the ground. As Connected Minds moves forward, I think we’ll find opportunities for more projects like this that combine the technological with the social.  

The premise of Connected Minds is that while new technologies are bringing great benefits to our society they also come with risks and potential harms, especially for equity-deserving groups. From your perspective, what are some of the most significant risks that technology poses to the health and wellbeing of our society?

Data is collected with every interaction with our health system and has so much potential to help us understand what is working and what is not in order to provide better care. But data is only as good as what is collected, and it can leave people and perspectives out. Data can perpetuate health inequities if we don’t consider who we are missing in that data and how it is collected. As a primary care researcher, I am interested in using AI and more specifically natural language processing to explore health data in electronic medical records. This has exciting potential but we must also consider how biases show up in documentation and the accuracy of how people are represented – particularly those who come from communities that are traditionally underrepresented. I am a co-investigator on a CIHR-funded project called Artificial Intelligence for Public Health (AI4PH) that is working to build capacity in AI and big data to address population health challenges and to understand how these tools impact health equity. There are certificate programs, scholarships, and internship opportunities for public health researchers and practitioners to address population-level challenges in a responsible way.

In my work with Oasis, I also see significant challenges related to access to technology, even for many small things people take for granted. For example, some of our Oasis members have difficulty affording a cell phone or a data plan and for others it can be the confidence to access virtual health appointments or fear of credit card scams when using online payments. We need to address these gaps in data and access if we want technology to help everyone.

What are some of the questions you’re hoping to answer through your work on Connected Minds, and where do you think you will start?

A few things that come to the forefront for me are how do older adults identify technology needs and how are they involved in the co-design of technology. I think there will also be some interesting work with the Men’s Shed and exploring intergenerational connections through high and low technology creations.

I am also keen to explore AI in primary care teams to better understand how the interprofessional team, including occupational therapists, can support people to remain connected in their homes and neighbourhoods.

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