2014 Ganey Research Award Recipient

“How can we leverage data about our lifestyles, environment, socio-economic conditions to develop an actionable and personalized health and wellness plan?” Just as Amazon and Netflix can give suggestions about the types of books and movies one might enjoy, Professor Nitesh Chawla hopes for a similar system to guide people to better health choices. “What if … all our data could be leveraged?” he asked. “If diseases are driven by lifestyle, shared experiences, similarities, behaviors and habits, we have an opportunity of doing that.”

Since arriving at Notre Dame in 2007, Professor Chawla’s passion has been leveraging big data for the common good. His research in network and data science in personalized health and wellness is translating into solutions for real problems within the community.

Professor Chawla, who refers to himself as a dataologist, said that Americans’ health and wellness would improve if more attention were paid to the circumstances of people’s daily lives, such as access to grocery stores, recreational facilities and schools, in addition to whether they smoke or have allergies. In partnership with their doctors, people could then identify trends between their personal habits and certain diseases. Chawla said that tracking personal data on a large scale — big data — can help move people from insufficient health care to abundant health. “The health and wellness problem,” he said, is actually “outside of the setting of health care.”

According to iCeNSA community health program manager and Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute’s Community Health Enhancement (CHE) program liaison Waldo Mikels-Carrasco, “Nitesh has a real special interest in the improvement of personalized health and health care and using data to streamline that process.”

In a recently completed local pilot project, Chawla, with his graduate student Dipanwita Dasgupta, collaborated with CHE program staff at Memorial Hospital in South Bend within its Aging-In-Place program at Heritage Place at LaSalle Square. Heritage Place is an independent living facility in South Bend.

The project was to develop a tool to improve the residents’ ability to manage their prescription medications. With the use of digital tablets, the residents tested the personalized health and wellness application developed by Chawla’s group, which provided them with personalized observations of daily living, such as reminders of when to take their medications.

According to Patty Willaert, manager of community outreach at Memorial, “The residents didn’t fully grasp that this was going to be the first use of the tool. There was a lot of frustration initially. Now, the residents have come to see that they are a part of the process and are giving valuable feedback.” They have become more active agents in their own care.

Margo DeMont, executive director of Community Health Enhancement at Memorial Hospital, said, “I feel our seniors crossed that bridge to technology and feel comfortable using technology. Nitesh opened it all up for us. He is a very dedicated, humane person.”

Chawla’s collaboration with the CHE program and Heritage Place at LaSalle Square residents will continue toward a comprehensive understanding of the impact of smart health technology in forming health and wellness. Future projects are already in discussion to model and study how to appropriately structure the incentives for the residents of aging-in-place communities in the region.

Chawla works not only in his own discipline, but also across disciplines, encouraging projects with graduate and undergraduate students from Notre Dame in collaboration with a variety of partners in the South Bend area. In addition, according to Mikels-Carrasco, Chawla “has made himself and iCeNSA available to aspiring local high school students interested in exploring the study of network and data science and is also launching two new funded pilots with a middle school and a diabetic population."