Empowered by technology

May/June 2017   Comments

Tracie Risling’s research ensures advances in e-health remain focused on patients

Teckles Photography Inc.

Tracie Risling knew her research into the effectiveness of technology in helping patients gain access to their health information was vital when one of the first participants in a pilot project told her a patient portal helped her detect her own cancer.

An assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s college of nursing in Saskatoon, Risling was evaluating electronic portals through which patients can view their test results. Shortly after logging on, the patient spotted an anomaly in her blood work.

Having access to this information spurred the next steps. “She was so empowered by seeing the data and getting treatment initiated, and she was using the portal as she prepared for surgery.”

Risling believes incorporating technology into patient-centred care will achieve better outcomes for many patients. A health informatics researcher, she pursued that career path after becoming a pediatric nurse, following her graduation in 2003 from the University of Saskatchewan.

During her PhD study on communities of practice, Risling was drawn to health informatics because she could see its power to engage students and patients. This multidisciplinary field combines elements of health, information technology and analytic sciences. In practice, it encompasses design, delivery, adoption and application of innovative technology in all aspects of health care.

She introduced technology in the classroom early in her teaching career, through music, videos and the use of electronic polling. Today, she also weaves social media, like live Twitter feeds, into lectures, and she has her students regularly check their digital footprint. That’s important from an employability perspective and for raising awareness of how the profession might be perceived online.

In her research, she creates teams of patients, health-care providers and technology specialists to assess whether health-care applications are user friendly and helpful. She says patients should be consulted during the design of new health technology, rather than forced to adopt technology they don’t want or don’t know how to use.

Her goal is to provide patients with better, faster access to information so they are empowered to be active participants in improving their health. To that end, she also promotes the use of social media and technology in nursing. For example, she is calling for a set of standard nursing hashtags to be adopted in Canada and presents at conferences on patient engagement and empowerment.

Her family members share her interest in technology. Her computer scientist husband, Derek, is working with her on a tool to help family nurses assess the amount of time clients spend on social media and how it affects family dynamics. Sons Sam, 14, and Isaac, 18, recently taught her to use Snapchat, and she’s considering how to use it to distribute health information to teens.

One son has Crohn’s disease. Risling is leading a research team in collaboration with Crohn’s and Colitis Canada to develop a smartphone app that will help youth with inflammatory bowel disease transition to adult care. The app will include text reminders to take medication and schedule blood work (and will notify caregivers to provide reminders as needed) and even help with directions to the adult practitioner’s office.

“It’s critical that young patients learn how to manage their chronic disease and live a healthy life,” she says. “We want to make it easier for them, using the device they already have in their hand.”

Risling envisions all patients and their families being electronically connected to their health records within a decade. The records themselves will feature information delivered through a host of wearable devices and other data sources. “Technology is going to deliver on the promise of patient-centred care.”

Having the skills to manage and assess the volume of data these new technologies will produce will be vital for nurses, she says. They will need to act as advocates to ensure all patients benefit from e-health, not just those with access to broadband networks, reliable connectivity and the devices themselves.

Safeguarding privacy is one of the chief concerns accompanying the increasing use of e-health solutions. But nurses are accustomed to ensuring privacy, and most patients realize data is well secured, she says. Those she has surveyed say they want access to and control over their health information, and they understand that hospitals and other institutions do their utmost to protect confidentiality.

Increasingly, Risling sees nurses using social media in the same way she does: to create learning networks and assemble communities of practice to share knowledge and resources and advance nursing policy. In addition, they are receiving research and practice tips by following educators, researchers and clinicians. The true benefits are that nurses are engaging with one another, supporting patients and promoting the value of nursing care.

Like it or not, technology is increasingly going to be part of health care, she says. “We’re only going to get more and more connected.”


10 questions with Tracie Risling

What is one word you would use to describe yourself?
Forward-looking

If you could change anything about yourself, what would it be?
Be better at living in the moment (perhaps a common flaw for the forward-looking)

What is one thing about you that people would be surprised to learn?
I prefer print, over e-versions, for books, newspaper, magazines and journals

“If I had more free time, I would...”
Ideally, get outdoors with my camera; more likely, I’d clean out the storage room

Where did you go on your last vacation?
Europe, on an amazing travel adventure with my family

What was the last good book you read?
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Who inspired you to become a nurse?
My Aunt Marilyn was an unstoppable nursing force, and I try to embody that spirit

What was the best piece of career advice you’ve received?
That would have to be the day a colleague asked, “Why don’t you just finish your nursing degree?”

What is the best thing about your current job?
Everything — this is my dream job

What do you like least about being a nurse?
Stubbornly persistent stereotypes about who is, or should be, a nurse and about the work we do

Laura Eggertson

Laura Eggertson is a freelance journalist in Ottawa.

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