For the fifth anniversary of the eHealth Center, a Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) facility for research in digital health, we interviewed Marta Aymerich, Vice President for Strategic Planning and Research of the UOC and President of the eHealth Center's Executive Board. She shared her appraisals of the milestones achieved over the last five years and the challenges for the future.
The eHealth Center is five years old. What are the main objectives it has achieved over this period?
I think we've worked hard and we're beginning to see the results. Throughout this period, we've been guided by three main principles: to boost research and knowledge exchange within and beyond the university; to facilitate interdisciplinary networked activities, and to catalyse digital health by disseminating and raising the profile of research, innovation and educational activities carried out by the university in this field.
There are now 15 groups researching digital health at the UOC, and we've provided platforms for international academic debate, for instance in our monthly eHealth Talks. We've also organized an annual grants programme to promote research, and have made a series of strategic alliances with global organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Association of Universities (IAU), and with leading institutions in our more immediate health context, such as the Catalan Healthcare Assessment and Quality Agency (AQuAS) and Barcelona's Sant Joan de Déu Hospital, to give just two examples.
Much of the eHealth Center's efforts have focused on promoting growth in research in digital health within the university. What's your assessment of these efforts?
It's positive; we can now say that digital health has firmly established itself as one of the UOC's three specialist research fields, alongside the network society and e-learning.
Out of a total of 51 research groups at the UOC, 15 are dedicated to digital health. And, of these, four are directly affiliated with the eHealth Center, having been selected in 2021 by means of an assessment process involving an external scientific committee. The principal investigators of these four groups dedicate most, if not all, of their research efforts to digital health.
It's worth noting that, under the aegis of the eHealth Center, we aim to raise the profile of the whole digital health research community, promoting all research in this field, regardless of whether it comes from our affiliated groups.
Over this period we've promoted and consolidated periodic activities such as the monthly eHealth Talks I've already mentioned and the annual grants programme for master's degree final projects in partnership with the Faculty of Health Sciences and the Faculty of Computer Science, Multimedia and Telecommunications. We've also launched an annual grants programme for proofs of concepts, which encourage interdisciplinary and cross-cutting research into digital health at the UOC.
The eHealth Center collaborates with a range of national and international institutions such as the WHO. How does the UOC contribute to these networks?
We network and collaborate with many different centres and institutions, both local and international. We've been heading the IAU global cluster of universities on the Good Health and Well-being Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 3) since 2018. This involves working with universities from every continent. We're also providing support for the UOC Faculty of Health Sciences, which has been a WHO Collaborating Centre for Digital Health since April 2018. And we've worked alongside the Inter-American Development Bank and Argentina's Ministry of Education, Culture, Science and Technology to run a postgraduate course in digital health for Argentinian professionals, and have established a community of practice with its graduates.
We're also working to bolster our presence within our more immediate health and research ecosystem. We cooperate with institutions such as the Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBELL), the Vall d'Hebron Research Institute (VHIR) and Barcelona City Council's Municipal Institute for People with Disabilities (IMPD), to name a few.
And during this period we've joined forces with the CataloniaBio & HealthTech association to find common ground to create synergies. It was this desire to find platforms for exchange that led to the eHealth What If Forum, an initiative for debate and discussion about digital health that the eHealth Center organized in November 2021 and that is, in a way, the successor to the International Research Conference on eHealth and eWell-being, organized by the eHealth Center in 2018.
There are a number of digital health research groups that work in partnership with health centres and other actors within the Catalan health ecosystem. Why is it so important to transfer the knowledge generated by the university to society? How can the eHealth Center promote this?
The centre has the mission of fostering research and innovation in digital health to become a driver of societal change, promoting the transformation of the health system. To achieve this, we believe that it is important for the actors engaged in this change to have shared spaces where everyone can contribute their expertise in their particular branch of knowledge to combine experiences and progress towards a health system that benefits both users and professionals alike.
Being interconnected with other organizations in the field of health provides a great opportunity for building projects with an interdisciplinary, cross-cutting perspective. For example, we form part of the Barcelona Aging CoLLaboratory (BALL), located in the Parc Sanitari Pere Virgili health complex, which also benefits from the involvement of a range of institutions from the Catalan health ecosystem.
The UOC inaugurated its Interdisciplinary R&I Hub, which is now home to the eHealth Center. What does this commitment to digital health research at the University represent?
The building of the hub helps us promote interdisciplinary research to contribute solutions in the three key fields in which, as I mentioned before, our expertise is recognized: e-learning, digital health and the network society. All of the university's research community and the teams supporting it are together under one roof, equipped with experimentation labs and work spaces, and we believe that this creates the ideal conditions under which ideas, new collaborations and projects – which might not have occurred otherwise – can flourish.
There are many groups with research lines that could be closely related to digital health, and we hope that the hub can help foster closer ties between these groups and those already doing research in digital health. One of the main objectives of the eHealth Center is to promote research in our field within the university, and thanks to these facilities we believe that new ideas, partnerships and synergies will arise.
What are the eHealth Center's goals for the coming years, and what challenges will it face?
Over the course of the last five years, we've witnessed a growth and an evolution in the use of digital health. To a significant extent, this has been sped up by the COVID-19 pandemic. We can see many challenges for the future of digital health, relating to how these technologies have been adopted and all the work that still needs to be done to achieve its real implementation.
This implementation must be based on scientific evidence and, to achieve this, there is a need for a lot of translational research, in other words, research focused on cutting the time between obtaining research outcomes and applying them in clinical practice and public health. There's also a need for a great deal of interdisciplinary research to help progress the healthcare model, making it more personalized and salutogenic, that is, more focused on health, how to promote and maintain it, and not so much on illness. Public participation in research and co-design and co-creation with the public are clearly important challenges on the road towards this model.
To tackle these challenges, at the eHealth Center we're researching how digital technologies can help improve individual and collective health and well-being, how we can leverage technology, communication and data to strengthen health systems and health professionals, and how digital health can help us enhance both our understanding of our health and our ability to make decisions about it.