Why I Do What I Do: What My Grandpa Taught Me About Health Informatics

July 7, 2017

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This week’s blog post by Allie Margaret May is an opinion piece on health informatics.

Last week I headed back to Toronto for an unplanned visit. The bittersweet taste of the airplane air mirrored my emotions, as my purpose for heading back home was to support my grandpa through a complex surgery.

Jokingly known in my family as my “second mother”, my grandpa was the main character of my childhood. He cooked my meals, walked me everywhere I went, and tucked me into bed every night. As the child of new immigrants, my grandparents raised me while my parents worked multiple jobs in order to establish our new lives in a new country. My grandparents instilled in me many of the core values that shaped the person that I am today.

Moving to Canada

When we first moved to Canada, I had a very difficult time transitioning into Canadian culture. I often found myself being scolded by teachers for not understanding instructions or ignoring cultural norms, such as asking permission to use the bathroom. I’d often greet my grandpa at the school doors with tears in my eyes and every single time, he’d say the same thing to me: “You need to learn to stand up for yourself. You can’t assume others know what your situation is if you stay silent. Say something…anything. Just to show that you’re thinking about what you are doing.”

Over time, my broken English evolved into coherent sentences and I grew better and better at explaining my actions. I didn’t always reason or rationalize like other Canadian kids – I remember a particularly awkward moment when there was a fire drill at school and I started searching for a bomb shelter- but through the power of language, I became better at clarifying my actions and was able to strengthen my connections to those who thought differently than me.

Now as an adult, I may be better informed about Canadian norms – I’m currently sipping a Tim Hortons coffee – but I still retain, and am proud of, my unique perspective.

As I’ve grown older and my school days transformed into work days, I took what my grandpa taught me and applied it to my career. As a nurse, I recognized the importance of sharing my thoughts from not only an interpersonal perspective but also for the purpose of health literacy and education. When I shared the rationalization of my actions with a patient, the principle of transparency would enter our relationship. To me, the words represented my respect for the patient’s trust. They became a binding contract that guided my actions and ensured that everything I did was in the patient’s best interest. Ultimately, communication became my cornerstone for patient-centered care.

Moving into Health Informatics

As I moved into the health informatics industry, I realized that my grandpa’s after-school lesson rang just as true.
Primarily, I realized that when I talked about health informatics with people outside of the field, they often looked at me in the same way my 6-year-old classmates did when I tried to explain in broken English why I have borscht for lunch. It seems as though the technical jargon revolving around the health informatics community had clouded an easy idea: we seek to improve health and wellness through the use of technology. Why had such a simple concept been, rather unfairly, labelled as a niche academic interest? Why had such an insular community been created for an industry that affects us all? And ultimately, where did health informatics’ PR problem come from?

The Power of LA note book with the words, words have power, written across it, while a hand and ink pen hover above the pages.ove Words

When I started to immerse myself in this new field, I was empowered by the potential of health technology to drastically improve people’s lives. Unfortunately, I was equally overwhelmed by the amount of buzzwords I came across. From “disruptive” to “microservices”, I once again felt like the 6-year-old child who was surrounded by a new culture and new language. If someone like me, a healthcare professional, is flummoxed by all these new words, I can’t imagine how a patient feels when they try to choose a consumer health technology product.

Ironically, one of the major trends in health informatics is patient engagement. Yet, the chasm between lay language and technology buzzwords continues to widen. How can an industry that’s targeting the everyday person actually reach its demographic if they use language that’s understandable only to a small group of people who are in the know? Although I presently feel this may be veering into “slippery slope” territory, in a few years, it may be fair to say that the clouding of health language in the public sphere is indirectly a public health issue. There’s an important discussion to be had about whether a private industry that often intersects with our public healthcare system has an obligation to regulate the way it operates. I would argue no, on the basis of free speech and autonomy, but would emphasize the importance of investigating the power of language on our citizens’ health outcomes.

The buzzword plague is not entirely the fault of the health informatics community. Much of the symptoms are caused by the startup and tech worlds that it overlaps with. However, the difference between those areas and health informatics is that health informatics directly affects the lives of people who have entered our healthcare system. We have a duty to provide the best care possible to them, and if we want that care to be patient-centered, then it must be produced in a way that is easily communicated. If Facebook decides to brand a new buzzword, its repercussions are very different to a hospital implementing (and thus explaining to a patient) a new health informatics service.

There needs to be further discussion on whether the elusiveness of health technology buzzwords actually impacts its delivery of health care. If more straightforward language was used, could the industry reach a wider segment of the population, and therefore, better improve the health of more Canadians? Ultimately, are buzzwords clouding the vision and purpose of health informatics? Let me ask my grandpa.

– Allie Margaret May, MHI, who still eats borscht for lunch

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Marielle Boutin
Email Address: ihpme.communications@​utoronto.ca

Manages all IHPME-wide communications and marketing initiatives, including events and announcements.