Health Informatics is the study of the use and management of digital technologies, medical data and information to support health and wellbeing for patients, caregivers and the public.
We research the use of information within healthcare: this includes digital information as well as paper-based information systems.
We examine the information used by patients and their family members and carers, health care professionals, health service managers and librarians, as well members of the public.
We use a range of methodologies including both qualitative and quantitative research.
The quantitative methods include surveys and analysing health data using statistical methods such as regression models, and data mining methods such as genetic algorithms.
The qualitative methods utilise interview and focus group methods, and employ thematic analyses, including framework analysis.
The nature of our research means that it is necessarily collaborative and the work we do involves colleagues within the University of Sheffield and in other universities. We work with colleagues in palliative medicine, public health, emergency medicine, psychiatry, biomedical engineering, sociology and computer science.
Key research areas
- Analysis of health data and information
- Evaluation of health information systems
- Health information needs and information behaviours
- Promotion of positive health outcomes in the global South
- Wearables and digital health
The work we undertake is of interest to a variety of different stakeholders, including government departments, health Trusts and charitable organisations.
Information overload in emergency medicine
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Information overload is more than ever affecting modern society due to the wide and increasing distribution of digital technologies. Social media, emails, online communications among others infuse a sense of urgency as information must be read, produced and exchanged almost instantaneously. Emergency medicine is a medical specialty particularly affected by information overload with consequences on patient care that are difficult to quantify and address. Understanding the current causes of medical information overload, their impact on patient care and strategies to handle the inflow of constant information is crucial to alleviating the stress and anxiety already crippling the profession. This study aims to identify and evaluate the main causes and sources of medical information overload as experienced by emergency medicine physicians (EMPs) in selected NHS Trusts in the UK. This study utilises a mixed-methods approach involving a quantitative, survey-based, data collection data collection tool and in-depth, semi-structured interviews conducted with EMPs.
Respiratory difficulties in people suffering from clinical anxiety
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Anxiety is one of the most common disorders with which people present for treatment. Respiratory abnormalities are frequently part of the picture particularly in the more severe variant, panic disorder (DSM 5 300.01, ICD 10 F41.0), when hypocapnia resulting from hyperventilation is often a major contributor to the development of physical symptoms. Treatment of panic attacks involves cognitive, emotional and physical elements, the latter including the well-known paper bag manoeuvre to raise plasma CO2 and, in the longer term, retraining the person’s breathing. Chronically anxious people generally have poor voluntary control over their breathing. In particular, they tend not to use their diaphragms and even at rest breathe with only their intercostal muscles which reduces inspired volume and leads to a sensation of “not getting enough air”; this can of itself promote hyperventilation which then sets off a cascade of secondary effects. Even when their faulty breathing is pointed out to them and diaphragmatic breathing is demonstrated, chronically anxious people are usually unable to achieve this without considerable training, which often takes weeks.
This study aims to examine the relationship between a diagnosis of clinical anxiety and the presence of respiratory difficulties, to establish the frequency and severity of such difficulties in a clinical population compared with a non-anxious control group, to investigate whether the type of anxiety (e.g. presence or absence of panic attacks) is related to the presence or severity of respiratory difficulties.
Information needs of secondary informal caregiver of people with dementia
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People are living longer than ever before in the history of humankind. In 2018, for the first time on record, persons aged 65 or above outnumbered children under five years of age globally (United Nations, 2019). This ageing trend is attributed to the medical, scientific, and technological advances that have allowed a steady decline in mortality. This dramatic increase in the number of people that will develop disability and dependence through dementia translate in a parallel, and equally dramatic, increase in the number of informal caregivers looking after them. Some of these caregivers, usually called ‘secondary caregivers’, do not have primary responsibility of and live away from their loved ones and often encounter barriers (e.g. legal, emotional, geographical, etc.) that prevent them from properly performing their supportive caring role. This study aims to assess the information seeking journey of secondary informal caregivers of people with dementia from the time they initiated their caring role to the present.
Food and activity logging: insights into the reasons for using food apps
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Use of diet and fitness tracking apps is becoming widespread, with one of the most popular, MyFitnessPal having amassed 75 million registered users worldwide (MyFitnessPal, 2014). Indeed, it is estimated that there are over 10,000 apps that aim to target diet and weight loss alone (Azar et al., 2013). Interest in these apps is increasing: consumer research has shown that 79% of UK adults have some kind of health or fitness goal with 54% of consumers interested in logging or monitoring aspects of activity or wellbeing using apps (Mintel, 2015). In addition to this general interest, specific groups could benefit significantly from such tools but have very different information needs and practices. Those with medical conditions such as diabetes can use them to control their weight and monitor medication intake. Those with IBS can use them to identify the causes of symptoms. Those who run for fitness, wellbeing or as a hobby can use them to support their participation in the sport. What is considered to be information literacy in these different landscapes could vary significantly. However, very little research has been done on how these specific populations are adopting and using logging apps and the information practices they adopt.
The main objective of this research is to build contacts with Diabetes UK, Parkrun UK and the Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) network to gain their support for a research proposal to investigate the information behavior and information literacy of food and activity logging using apps.
Evaluation of the NICE Evidence search Student Champion Scheme
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The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) introduced the Evidence search (ES) Student Champion Scheme (SCS) in 2011. In developing ES, NICE has brought together high quality, pre-appraised evidence from hundreds of trusted health and social care sources, including systematic reviews, guidance and information for the public. The ultimate aim of the SCS is to increase the uptake and use of evidence-based resources and guidance through a programme of education and support. The SCS is a ‘Train the Trainer’ programme in which NICE Information Specialists, often with local academic and library staff input, work with Student Champions to give them the knowledge, tools and confidence to facilitate ES sessions for their peers. Between May 2011 and March 2018, 1809 undergraduate students from 50 schools of health and social care have been recruited as Champions; together, they have taught over 13 000 of their peers.
This study aims to regularly evaluate the uptake of and perceptions about Evidence search from the viewpoint of both users and Champions and to offer recommendations for further developments of the programme.
Longitudinal studies of loneliness among older people
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The world is facing a major public health challenge as the proportion of the people aged 65 or older in the world increases due to rising life expectancy and improved healthcare services. Loneliness is an important indicator of health and well-being, and it is considered as a serious social and public health problem among elderly people.
Loneliness is a complex concept, which is associated with a wide range of demographic (e.g., age, gender, marital status), social (family contact, interests, friendship), economic (financial situation), and physical and mental health factors.
We will conduct our longitudinal analysis of the factors related to loneliness within the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA). ELSA is a nationally representative, longitudinal study of the people aged 50 years or more living in England. Our study will be performed using the ELSA data from 7 biennial (two-year) waves conducted from 2002 to 2015.
Our studies will focus on the following research issues:
- How old people experience feelings of loneliness for each ELSA wave?
- How the loneliness changes over time during the 14 years of the study?
- What factors are associated with the loneliness and how they affect differently on the loneliness prediction.
- What reason cause loneliness changes over time (e.g., always lonely, became lonely, stopped being lonely, never lonely, and variable lonely)
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- A Shared Space and a Space for Sharing
As well as publishing our findings from the ‘Space for Sharing’ project in academic research journals, we are sharing the results from the project with the public and with health care professionals and health organisations and charities that support people living with breast cancer and other long-term conditions.
We have developed information sheets about online health forums for patients living with breast cancer and for health care professionals who are supporting patients. These are available at the project web-site:
Hard copies can be requested from the research team.
Working with the Dead Earnest Theatre Company we developed a play, called “A Space for Sharing” based on our findings from the study. The play features five fictional women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer and who use an online health forum to get to know other women with the condition. A filmed version of the play can be viewed at:
- Trust scale
Dr Laura Sbaffi has developed a trust scale (Trust in Online Health Information Scale - TOHI) to assess how people trust online health information, and this scale has now been made part of the curriculum for undergraduate nursing students in the BSc Nursing degree programme at Trinity Western University, Canada. The scale helps nursing students to build their competency to appraise the quality of online health information as part of their maternity course. The trust scale is now also used by PhD students at Salisbury University and at the Graduate School of Nursing, Ewha Womans University, South Korea and has been integrated to the range of assessment tools by WellSpoken (https://wearewellspoken.com/), an independent authority mark for quality accreditation of health online information.
The TOHI is explained and discussed in the following articles:
Johnson F, Sbaffi L, Rowley J. Students' approaches to the evaluation of digital information: Insights from their trust judgments. British Journal of Educational Technology. 2016 Nov;47(6):1243-58.
Rowley J, Johnson F, Sbaffi L. Gender as an influencer of online health information‐seeking and evaluation behavior. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology. 2017 Jan;68(1):36-47.
- Evaluation of health information systems and analysis of health information
Peter Bath is working with Rotherham Clinical Commissioning Group to provide advice on how they can make best use of the patient data that are gathered as part of routine care in order to plan and deliver health services.
Funders and collaborators:
- Wellcome Trust
- Research England
- National Institute for Health Research
- NHS Trusts
- Breast Cancer Now
- Endometriosis Association of Ireland
- Parkrun UK
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Network
- Good Things Foundation
- Motor Neurone Disease Association
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