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Six innovative projects to meet health challenges launched

  • Date

    Thu 30 Apr 20

Old woman looking out of window

Six projects tackling various key health challenges are now underway following a successful Challenge Lab at the University of Essex.

The purpose of the University’s Challenge Labs is to create an environment where business, public and third sector organisations are invited to identify their “business problems” and work with Essex researchers to develop solutions.

The University organised a Challenge Lab in partnership with Public Health England last summer as a result of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) partnership agreement between the two organisations.

This Lab identified several potential health projects and after further development six projects have each now been funded with £10,000 from Essex’s Impact Acceleration Account (IAA)

IAAs are block awards made to research organisations by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) with the aim of speeding up the impact of research.

Deputy Dean of Research for the Faculty of Social Sciences Professor John Preston, who is also the academic leading IAA at Essex, said: “Our first round of IAA funding developed some fantastic initiatives which will have lasting impact in the community and economy.

“I am delighted last year’s highly-successful Public Health Challenge Lab, in conjunction with Public Health England, has generated another superb collection of research projects tackling a wide range of issues. Thanks to investment from the ESRC I look forward to seeing these projects transform to real-world impact. Obviously, the current pandemic means that public health is an area of current concern and these projects seek to impact on health across a wide variety of policy arenas.

The six projects which are now underway are:

Breaking down barriers for the benefit of population health

The challenge of this project is to address the growing issue of health inequalities in north-east Essex and to support agencies sharing information and working together more closely.

The aim is to use artificial intelligence, machine learning and data sharing expertise to bring together data from different organisations to better understand the public health needs and strengths in north-east Essex.

This project, involving the University, Healthwatch Essex, Community 360, Colchester Borough Council and Essex Fire and Rescue, aims to break down barriers to data sharing to show how this can develop solutions for health and wellbeing issues.

Using smart technology to improve oral health for those with early stage dementia

Focusing on those living independently with an early diagnosis of dementia who are also able to use a mobile phone, the project, will use a specialised toothbrush with a built-in sensor which will measure when the toothbrush is being used and for how long.

This information will be fed back to the university where it will be analysed. If a person is not using their toothbrush a prompt reminder will be sent to them via text or voice prompt such as via an Amazon Alexa.

The short-term objectives for this project, involving experts at Essex, PHE and community services provider Provide, are to increase brushing activity and in the long-term improve oral health leading to fewer emergency dental treatments.

Public health risks for breast cancer patients: to communicate or not to communicate

For public health, good risk communication has the potential to improve health but bad risk communication can create feelings of mistrust among people and magnify stress which could lead to more serious outcomes.

This project is aiming to get a better understanding of how public health related risk gets communicated to cancer patients, in particular breast cancer patients, and how it has changed over the years.

The Essex team Involved in this project brings together academic expertise and ideas from social sciences, computer science, risk management, history and public health.

Development of an in-vitro model for Parkinson’s disease

Parkinson’s disease affects 6.1 million people globally and the causes have been attributed to both genetic and environmental effects.

There is currently no treatment or cure for Parkinson’s and we need to understand more about this disease in order to develop effective treatments or provide effective risk prevention advice to the public.

The proposal brings together skills from different departments at the University, PHE, the University of Hull and the Quadram Institute to develop a new in-vitro (in the laboratory) model to investigate Parkinson’s disease and potentially other neuro-degenerative disorders.

Non-intrusive residential energy monitoring for dementia

Experts at Essex are working on a project with Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust to look at ways of supporting people with dementia to live in their own homes for longer.

Using smart meter data analysis and state-of-the-art machine learning algorithms, the researchers are hoping to identify changes in energy consumption which could be an indicator of self-neglect. This tool could support clinical decision making and effective interventions.

Understanding and Influencing people’s decision-making and travel choices when making short trips

Physical inactivity is responsible for one in six UK deaths and current health advice is people should take at least 150 minutes of moderate activity per week.

Getting more people to take active forms of travel over shorter distances is one of the simplest ways to achieve these targets. However, whilst the average number of trips and distance travelled in the UK has been falling over the years, most trips tend to be over shorter distances.

The University of Essex will combine its data from the household panel study Understanding Society with data from Public Health England, Transport for West Midlands and Warwickshire County Council to better understand travel behaviour and assess if active travel schemes are influencing changes in behaviour. This project is of particular relevance considering the current pandemic restrictions on travel and journeys.