Researchers all across the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus are working toward advancing knowledge and creating solutions to critical health disparities on both local and global scales. These researchers evaluate health disparities from a variety of interdisciplinary perspectives and work to find ways to address the discrepancies within medicine, child development, law, food access, education, and health communication. Each Researcher Spotlight features a health disparities researcher doing important work right here at Illinois.
Tim Hale, PhD
Assistant Teaching Professor,
Department of Kinesiology & Community Health
Tim Hale, PhD, is an assistant teaching professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health. Professor Hale’s expertise is in the design and evaluation of new digital health technologies. He joined the Illinois faculty to teach in the Master of Science in Health Technology program – a new, one-year professional program that is a collaboration between the College of Applied Health Sciences and the Grainger College of Engineering. Trained as a medical sociologist, Dr. Hale worked for seven years at Partners HealthCare, Center for Connected Health, where he led teams responsible for the design and software development of mobile health apps used to improve patient self-management and healthcare delivery. In addition to this applied research, Dr. Hale’s research focuses on digital divides and inequalities in health technology and the implications for providing equitable care.
What is your research in health disparities about?
My health disparities research focuses on understanding how social factors contribute to differences in the access and use of digital health technologies and the subsequent impact on health outcomes. This digital divide in technology use is an important area of research as digital technologies are increasingly used to improve and deliver healthcare services. My research interests center around: 1) how social conditions shape patterns of health technology use, or what I call “digital health lifestyles” that are part of a broader set of health behaviors or lifestyle; 2) understanding how differences in health technology use mitigate or exacerbate existing social inequalities in health; and 3) efforts to understand user needs and characteristics to design, implement, and evaluate new health technologies that are equitable and contribute to narrowing social inequalities in health.
How are you conducting your research?
My research on digital divides draws on secondary data collected using national health surveillance data and surveys. Most recently, I have co-authored papers that summarize digital divide research to highlight the importance of this topic during the current COVID-19 pandemic and the increased use of communication technologies for education, commerce, work, and healthcare. I am currently a co-investigator working with Jeannie Lee (PI, University of Arizona) and Wendy Rogers (Illinois), among others, on the NIH-funded study, “Medication Education, Decision Support, and Monitoring System 2.0 (MEDSReM-2),” aimed to create a mobile app to improve hypertension medication adherence. My role is to ensure the devices and app are easy to use by a diverse group of older adults. A multi-site randomized clinical trial is planned in the coming years.
How does being a part of the Illinois community support and enhance your research?
One of the reasons I was attracted to working at Illinois was the strategic focus on healthcare and technology, and the large number of faculty working in health technology and related fields. For example, in the College of Applied Health Sciences, several faculty members are working on health technology. I have been working with Dr. Wendy Rogers and her Human Factors and Aging Lab. I have also connected with Dr. Shannon Mejia who leads the Adult Development, Adaptation, and Technology Lab. The McKechnie LIFE Home (Living In Future Environments) is a new research space at Illinois devoted to creating and testing smart home health technologies and is a tremendous resource to support new research and serve as a hub for education and training. Outside of AHS, the new Siebel Center for Design is another great resource and I have been working with folks there to see how we might collaborate in the future on the health technology design projects. Finally, the Grainger College of Engineering has a strong program focused on research and teaching in healthcare systems engineering.
How will your research or work improve society or reach people?
There are at least two ways this research can be used to improve society. First, basic research on digital divides can raise awareness of the potential unintended consequences of new technology-based systems and inform decisions on how to best use new technology to provide equitable technology-based healthcare. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the rapid adoption of telehealth, such as virtual visits and remote monitoring. Although many have benefitted from the use of telehealth, we have also seen that not everyone is able to access or make effective use of the new services. Digital divide research provides a framework for understanding how existing social inequalities translate into persistent divides in technology access, use, and health outcomes. Second, my applied research in human factors contributes to creating human-centered design and more useful health technology. Working with intended users to understand their experiences and the challenges they face in carrying out tasks enables a team to design new health technologies that meet their needs and the challenges they face in completing health-related tasks. The result is a new health device or mobile app that is more likely to be used and have a positive impact on people’s lives and health.
Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this area of study?
I became interested in the social and individual-level impacts of new technologies due to changes in my previous career working in print production and publishing. In the not so distant past, skilled craftspeople would create the plates used in printing from the original text, illustrations, and photos provided by graphic designers. As personal computers and specialized software became more powerful and less expensive, there was a “desktop publishing” revolution that replaced older techniques with more efficient methods. As technology improved, the skills required were reduced, a process called “deskilling”, and fewer employees were needed. To keep a job, people needed to be constantly educating themselves on how to use the newest technology. I experienced firsthand the stress and sense of uncertainty as I struggled to keep up with these changes. Additionally, I saw that not all of my co-workers were in a position to adapt to these changes. As I looked at what was happening around me, I became interested in how new technologies impact people’s lives and how social and individual-level factors contribute to their ability to adapt to these changes. When I returned to school to pursue a doctorate degree in medical sociology, my interest shifted to study how a wide range of new digital technologies were being used in healthcare and how social factors influence technology adoption and use.