Many claims – largely untested - have been made about the benefits of living in an ‘information age’ including the potential for health information – made widely accessible through the Internet and other information and communication technologies (ICTs) - to inform and ultimately ‘empower’ citizens to make better decisions that will improve their health and well-being.
The main goal of my research is to answer the overarching question “does ‘information’ assist in making health-related decisions,” and, if so, “do these decisions lead to improved health and well-being for women?” Broadly framed, my goal is to understand how, on the one hand, to critically develop and evaluate information resources in ways that are meaningful for women, while on the other, explore how and why women seek information, what they plan to do with it, and whether it ‘works’. Importantly, I am also committed to developing ways to take the knowledge generated by this research and effectively communicate it to those who might use it in their daily decision-making, including policy-makers, those providing services to women (including health and social service providers, and information professionals), advocates, and women themselves. This involves a parallel process of “doing” knowledge translation and exchange (KTE – see below), while also researching the effectiveness of different types of KTE strategies on uptake, use and impact of new knowledge by different audiences. My primary content area, as described below, is violence against women and children.
My post-PhD academic career began in 2004 with a postdoctoral fellowship, funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)-Ontario Women’s Health Council, at McMaster University (Department of Psychiatry & Behavioural Neurosciences), followed by a tenure-track position at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information before moving to my current position in Western’s Faculty of Information & Media Studies (2007-present) where I’m now a tenured (2010) Full Professor (2016). The first five years of my appointment were supported by a CIHR New Investigator Award (Women’s Health), and from July 2014 to June 2016 I was the FIMS Faculty Scholar, an award designated by the University.
It was during my post-doctoral work that I established many of the research partnerships that have evolved into long-term collaborations. My approach to research is highly interdisciplinary and team-oriented, in part due to the nature of the studies I lead or otherwise participate in (large clinical trials, KT studies with policy partners, etc.). This is reflected in the many co-authored publications found in my CV, and also in the size of the teams involved in my research grants. Most of my work would not be possible without these collaborations, nor would it be as fulfilling.
Research Area 1: The health care response to violence against women and children
I have been studying family violence for over 15 years, with previous professional experience in related areas. I am motivated by principles of social justice and the need not only to find better ways to support women and children exposed to violence, but also to address the systemic and social structures that perpetuate violence and its harmful and ongoing consequences. My focus is on developing better evidence to support the health sector response to survivors of violence. Those exposed to violence are affected in a number of ways including a toll on their short- and long-term physical and mental health.
We know quite a lot about the risks for, and consequences of, violence and how it interacts with quality of life and well-being. We know less about what we should actually be doing to prevent violence and its consequences at the policy level and when providing direct service. I am strongly committed to developing and then mobilizing research knowledge so that it can be taken up in the “real world” – I develop and test knowledge mobilization processes so we can keep pushing ourselves to conduct relevant research and make sure it has the best chance of being used to make a difference. I founded a graduate program at the University of Western Ontario that has as main themes “knowledge translation” and “evidence-informed policy and practice”; this program develops highly qualified personnel in these areas, and I am privileged to supervise a number of students and post-doctoral fellows in cognate areas.
You can hear me describe my research in this area here.
Research Area 2: Knowledge Translation & Exchange
Effective knowledge translation and exchange (KTE) requires a better understanding of the contexts and constraints of both the producers and users of knowledge, but also what happens at this interface. A key research stream has been developing and evaluating ways to translate research evidence into practice. One of my main research questions, therefore, is: how have and will our research findings influence decision-making among the key stakeholders in the violence against women and children sector? To achieve some of these ends, we have continued using techniques I developed in a project funded by the Ontario Women’s Health Council, Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, to synthesize research reports into brief, policy-relevant research summaries (published in Healthcare Policy).
With Prof. Anita Kothari, I co-lead Western's Lab for KT in Health.
Research Area 3: Women's health decision-making - an Information Science perspective
My third main research stream – highly integrated with the first two both conceptually as well as in some aspects of content - has focused on women’s health decision-making, including studies examining hormone therapy decisions, whether and how women who have experienced intimate partner violence use information provided in health care settings, and how rural women seek and use health information.
Several themes have emerged from this work: 1) there is a huge amount of health information available, from many and diverse sources with often competing interests; 2) a growing expectation is that people will use information and communication technologies (ICTs) to access health information, but many may not have the literacies or social locations required to search for, assess and apply the right information for their situation; 3) people, and women in particular, want those who provide health information to care about their problem, and they seek out sources that do this – sometimes to the detriment of information quality; the types and roles of these ‘info(r)mediators’ was the topic of an edited book I published with my colleagues [see below]; 4) while many studies look at the utility of ICTs to improve delivery of information and in some cases assess whether knowledge improves, very few studies are designed to determine whether having information actually makes a difference in key health and well-being outcomes.
My research therefore asks the questions: 1) How do women - especially those with identified concerns, including exposure to violence - search for and use information? What are the roles of ICTs and formal and informal ‘info(r)mediators’? How do these sources interact? What literacies are required for women to effectively search for, find, understand and use information? How do various social locations and structural factors intersect to enable or prevent women from achieving their knowledge goals? 2) Does access to and use of health information improve women’s health and well-being? What woman-centred outcomes are appropriate to include in an analysis of the potential impact of health information?
Methodologically, I am committed to selecting the research method that best answers the specific question(s) being asked. Often, selecting the best approach to a research question means multiple and/or mixed methods, and as indicated in my CV, I have used methods ranging from multi-site experimental trials to qualitative interviews, and believe as well in better utilization of secondary data analysis, including systematic evidence reviews and syntheses. Recently, I’ve found that the case study approach, utilizing mixed methods to “surround” a question to understand it in depth as well as breadth, is particularly useful for my KTE research, where context plays an extremely important role in knowledge uptake and use.