Chair sees health literacy as social justice issue

Adela Talbot // Western News

Nursing professor Lorie Donelle, whose research addresses issues of health literacy, social justice and digital health, is the new Arthur Labatt Family Chair in Nursing at Western. Her term follows Nursing professor Heather Laschinger, who passed away in November 2016.

Lorie Donelle knows we are becoming increasingly dependent on modern technologies. She doesn’t want to constrain those uses – she wants to understand and maximize their benefits to improve health care.

“Technology, whether it’s a smart phone, or a certain app or social media, is just so ubiquitous in our life that it has become invisible. I want to make some of the invisible visible, in terms of how (technology) is changing how we practice health care, how we engage with patients, individuals and each other,” said Donelle, a Nursing professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences.

Donelle – whose research focuses on health literacy, social justice and digital health – is the new Arthur Labatt Family Chair in Nursing at Western. Her term follows that of Nursing professor Heather Laschinger, who passed away in November 2016.

“In the past, I’ve looked at issues of health literacy and health promotion but now I’m combining the technology piece more because so much of our health information and resources are available online, and in some instances, only available online,” Donelle said.

“It’s a real concern from a nursing and health-promotion perspective, when we talk about information access and health care access for everyone. Yet we know technology and health literacy skills are (lacking). And that is a concern.”

Donelle’s research examines what is broadly known as health informatics: how technology can benefit home care; the intersection of health care and the Internet, social media, mobile health and e-records; and technology-facilitated client and clinician health practices.

She holds a Canadian Institutes of Health Research grant for a project that, in partnership with academics across the country, is investigating a care model that enables remote health monitoring of seniors living at home and receiving support from family caregivers.

She has also conducted research on home care and technology-enabled models of palliative care to help support patients and families at end-of-life stages.

Donelle continues to study how digital and health literacy have an impact on the equity, or inequity, of access to health information, services and supports among marginalized populations.

Donelle sits on World Health Organization and national advisory committees for health literacy and digital health and is co-author of a book entitled Health Literacy in Canada: A Primer for Students.

“As we become more and more concerned with chronic illness, there’s an expectation that we need to be performing a lot of self-care and self-health promotion, and to do that, we need to have access to good information and be able to recognize good information,” Donelle explained.

“People need to have the skills and knowledge to access information, in terms of comprehending it and being able to discern good information from bad information.”

Her research and industry partnerships span from the local to the international. In London, she is working with marginalized populations of women to improve understanding of technology and access to health information; in Rwanda, she is a partner on a project that promotes nursing education.

“This chair position creates an incredible opportunity. It really provides resources for me to further engage in research and aligning that with the influence and impact of technology,” Donelle said.

“With technology, I question who is in control of our health care agenda, so I want to learn about the impact of technology right from situations of infancy and birth, to school-aged children, to the impact on university students and implications for older adults as well.”

She is creating a research team to address some of the long-term effects of technology on health.

“Lorie’s work is a very good fit with for the chair position because she is doing health information management and technologies – a burgeoning field. Lorie is doing cutting-edge work with her colleagues, in our faculty and beyond,” said Victoria Smye, Director of Western’s Arthur Labatt Family School of Nursing.

“We are trying to grow this expertise here at Western. She is bringing technology to the care of the elderly, into the home. This is an important area,” Smye continued.

“Information management and technology will have a big impact. It’s really important, bringing together this kind of research into practice – and that’s her thing, better patient outcomes.”