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DHI Seed Grants Kickstart Four Groundbreaking Digital Health Projects

Sophia Friesen

Four research teams from across the University of Utah have been awarded seed grants through the 2024 Inspiring Digital Health Innovations program, which aims to transform health care by promoting collaborations between digital health researchers.

The diverse range of funded projects share the overall goal of using technology in new ways to improve health, with an emphasis on mental health and rehabilitation. Many of the projects use gamification techniques and apps to train healthy mental habits and support health care workers in providing optimal care.

Developing these interventions involves multidisciplinary collaboration across the university, including scientists in the College of Health (COH), the College of Engineering (COE), the Spencer Fox Eccles School of Medicine (SFESOM), and more.

“The goal is to help these teams develop preliminary data for strong and competitive grant proposals,” said Guilherme Del Fiol, MD, PhD, co-director of the Digital Health Initiative. The seed grants kickstart projects that can ultimately grow into large clinical trials, where researchers can test the impact of their interventions, Del Fiol said.

This Year's Funded Projects

Addressing teacher stress through a game-based trauma-informed training for preschool teachers

PI: Alysse Loomis, PhD, assistant professor in the College of Social Work
Co-Is: Ashley Guajardo, PhD, associate professor in the Division of Games in COE; Kristine Campbell, MD, professor of pediatrics in SFESOM

Kids’ disruptive behavior in the classroom can stem from trauma and exposure to violence. Training teachers to manage disruptive behavior from a trauma-informed perspective not only helps address challenging behaviors, it also helps reduce stress for teachers themselves. Trauma-informed training is often provided in person, but game-based methods have the potential to be even more effective. The researchers are developing a game-like phone app to help teachers learn to address kids’ trauma responses by experiencing virtual classroom incidents and answering questions about the scenarios.

Development of a comprehensive virtual reality-based assessment for subtypes of unilateral spatial neglect

PI: Rhonda Nelson, PhD, assistant professor of occupational & recreational therapies in COH
Co-Is: Lorie Richards, PhD, chair of occupational & recreational therapies; Andrew Moran, PhD, director of the Software Development and Systems Design Core at the U; Sarah Creem-Regehr, PhD, professor of cognition and neural science in the College of Social & Behavioral Science; Steven Edgley, MD, director of stroke rehabilitation at the U; Mohammed Sbai, PhD, research assistant professor of occupational & recreational therapies; Patrick Walker, OTD, assistant professor of occupational & recreational therapies

Stroke often leads to a condition called unilateral spatial neglect, which affects a person’s awareness of one side of their body and their environment. Understanding which specific type of unilateral spatial neglect someone has can help them manage their condition most effectively, but diagnosing different subtypes of neglect is complex. The researchers aim to create a virtual reality-based tool that can distinguish between different kinds of unilateral spatial neglect, improving diagnosis and treatment for people post-stroke.

SupportGroove+: an app to support couples coping with chronic conditions and associated disability

PI: Alex Terrill, PhD, associate professor of occupational & recreational therapies
Co-Is: Larissa McGarrity, PhD, clinical psychologist in physical medicine & rehabilitation in SFESOM; Roger Altizer, PhD, associate professor of population health sciences in SFESOM

For people with disabilities and their partners, chronic health conditions and associated disabilities can impact romantic relationships. The researchers had previously developed a well-received app that supports people with spinal cord injuries and their partners in reconnecting, increasing their well-being, and improving their relationship dynamics. Now, the researchers aim to increase the app’s accessibility and generalize it to help people with a variety of chronic health conditions.

VMI:PT: development of a dynamic virtual motivational interviewing app for physical therapists

PI: Anne Thackeray, PhD, assistant professor of physical therapy & athletic training in COH
Co-Is: Brad Lundahl, PhD, associate professor in the College of Social Work; Roger Altizer; Chad McDonald, PhD, director of the Social Research Institute in the College of Social Work; Alex Terrill; Ward Heij, PhD, postdoctoral fellow in physical therapy & athletic training; Matt Davis, PhD, research associate professor of population health sciences

For physical therapy to be effective, patients often need to make changes to their behavior, such as practicing a specific exercise. A powerful strategy to help patients make those changes is a conversational practice called motivational interviewing that physical therapists use to help patients shift toward healthy behaviors. The research team will develop an app to train physical therapists to be effective motivational interviewers, springboarding off a tried-and-tested app that trains similar skills in child welfare workers.

Four profile photos of women smiling at the camera.
Left to right: Alysse Loomis, Rhonda Nelson, Alex Terrill, and Anne Thackeray, principal investigators of the funded projects.