When Tarun Katapally was a physician, the mere suggestion he’d be a professor one day would have made him laugh. But a drive to push his limits, along with “a penchant for curiosity about how to enable small changes in how we do things in science and society” compelled him to pursue his PhD. Today he’s an epidemiologist, a patient-oriented research leader, and an applied population health researcher. He’s also the newly minted Canada Research Chair in Digital Health for Equity.
Through his Digital Epidemiology and Population Health Laboratory (DEPth Lab), Katapally uses digital tools to engage communities to help inform health policies. Leveraging the ubiquitous smartphone, citizen scientists work with his team to address key public health issues ─ including the very ones society often blames the device for abetting, such as inactivity and mental health problems.
“When I think about digital health, one thing that is apparent to me is access, and a significant proportion of the Canadian population has access to smartphones. It’s not just about using big data to model our disease patterns, but also the ability to intervene in real time and provide virtual health-care services, and to potentially predict risk of communicable and non-communicable diseases in real time before someone experiences poor health outcomes. That is the future. That is where we are headed,” says Katapally.
You wear a lot of hats. What role most influences your work in the DEPth Lab?
A lot of my work is informed by what I’ve done in the past. As an applied population health researcher, I work in science, not for the sake of the science, but to apply it with communities that need it most and to minimize the inequities among different populations by addressing the gaps, for example, between incomes and services.
What does equity look like to you?
From a health perspective, it means a fair and just opportunity for everyone to lead a healthy life. For me, that means equitable resource distribution, and equitable access to health-care services.
In an age where “alternate facts” challenge scientific rigor and established facts, is it challenging to recruit citizen scientists?
I see our work as providing an opportunity to address misinformation. Our approach is to engage citizens from the beginning in the decision-making processes to source data that is driven by the people and for the people. Using digital platforms allows us to flip the data ownership narrative. Our digital citizen scientists own their data and can delete it at any time.
What excites you the most about your work? The ability to make an impact where it’s needed. I get excited that we can actually use these digital tools and work with kids in remote communities and in developing countries by providing equal access to the Internet. I think we undermine the miracle that we can engage with people remotely so quickly. It’s not about how cool my research program is. It’s about what excites our citizen scientists. One of the first things I tell my students and trainees is we are highly privileged, and it’s not about us. If you’re building a cool app or platform, put yourself in the citizens’ shoes. You have to be empathetic enough to understand what it means to them.
This story is part of our Endnotes 2022 series which showcases the people behind some of the year’s most compelling Western stories.