Project focuses on technology

January 08, 2004, vol. 29, no. 1
By Marianne Meadahl

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How technology impacts the health sector has been a key research focus of communication professor Ellen Balka for several years.

She is the leader of a $3 million, SSHRC funded project on the role of technology in producing and using health information. Her goal is to expand on that work to get a clearer picture of technology's impact on both the public and health professionals.

The project will enable her research team to further investigate the effectiveness of technology and influence the design of policies as well as new technological systems.

“One of the goals of our research is to better understand the problems that occur as new technologies are introduced into health settings,” says Balka, who is also a research scientist with the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute. “We hear far too often that a new computer system has made work more difficult. Our goal is to learn more about the contexts in which technologies are used, so that new technologies can be designed to better meet users' needs.”

Balka notes that health care has become increasingly subject to computerization while use of the internet as a source of health information continues to grow, leading to a variety of concerns. These include issues surrounding access and how information is interpreted. Balka hopes to determine whether existing internet delivery of health information and the growing computerization of health care jobs achieve desired results, such as equitable access to health information leading to improved health.

“The government and health providers have been actively promoting increased use of the internet as a means of accessing health information, in hopes that improved access to health information will empower patients and families as they address health issues,” notes Balka. “Thus far we know little about the challenges health information seekers face in making sense of the information they locate on the internet, or what impact it has on their health, their use of health services, or their interactions with health providers.”

The project will have global involvement, with researchers carrying out case studies in Canada, Austria, Australia the United Kingdom and Netherlands. “Our research is aimed at filling gaps in existing knowledge related to the development of the health info-structure,” adds Balka, noting that the need to better understand the role of health information technologies was identified in the recent high profile Romanow and Kirby reports on the nation's health care system.

“Government documents suggest the increased use of information technology in the health sector will decrease administrative inefficiencies, increase the accessibility of health services in rural areas and empower the public by providing increased access. We tend to think that technology can do all of this on its own, when in reality, the success of any technology rests on a good fit with the social context it will be used in.”

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