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Monday, October 2, 2023

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Four Big Ideas proposals will address mental and physical health issues with nuanced solutions. Four Big Ideas proposals will address mental and physical health issues with nuanced solutions.

Big Ideas for Health and Well-Being

Four ideas that will address mental and physical health issues with nuanced solutions.
By Padma Nagappan

First of four articles in a series on Big Ideas.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the forefront glaring disparities in access to health care that underserved communities contend with on a daily basis. 

Four teams of researchers at San Diego State University intend to address these gaps and the fragmented health care system by tackling them from different perspectives.

Health and well-being is one key category of Big Ideas which represents innovative solutions to real world problems. Other categories include Climate Change, Social Justice and Transborder Solutions

The ideas have been proposed by teams of cross-disciplinary researchers across campus who will work in tandem with students and the community. Big Ideas seeks to combine, leverage and promote SDSU’s strengths for the betterment of the world. The initiative was launched by President Adela de la Torre in fall 2019 and 17 teams have advanced to the next stage, following a year of ideation and discussion.

Here is a look at the proposals, which will be part of a video showcase series — Short Films for Big Ideas — followed by a webinar and moderated discussion scheduled for 5-6 p.m. Thursday, Mar. 4, via Zoom.

HEROs Institute

“Despite high health care costs, our health care outcomes are the worst among high-income countries we benchmark ourselves with,” said Harsimran Baweja, a clinical neuroscientist and physical therapy professor.

Baweja and social work professor María Luisa Zúñiga will work with colleagues from several allied health and biomedical disciplines across campus to bring about a grassroots systemic change in how we think about access and providing healthcare via the HEROs Institute. The name recognizes and pays homage to our students and healthcare providers who serve the community as unsung heroes, while preparing them for lifelong engagement with Health Education, Research, and Clinical Outcomes. 

Their team envisions a “sandbox of heroes” who will pioneer an integrated translational healthcare research institute which breaks through the current academic silos. Faculty from multiple allied health disciplines will work together and build on each other’s strengths to train, conduct clinical research and to accelerate the translation of science from “bench" to  the clinic, community, industry, and healthcare providers.

SDSU Child and Family Network 

In an average classroom, one in six children is diagnosed with a mental health disorder. Feion and Miguel Villodas, psychologists whose expertise in ethnic mental and physical health disparities and at-risk children and adolescents, find it’s difficult for most people to seek therapy.

“This is especially so for parents who might equate it with having failed their children,” Miguel said. “It’s hard to ask for help.” 

Having witnessed this time and again in their field work, the research team envisions a network of community partnerships and telehealth that will provide support services to underserved children and families in their homes, schools, and communities that address unmet healthcare and educational needs. 

Their team comprises dedicated researchers drawn from social work, child child and family development, and dual language and English learner education fields, who are committed to addressing disparities in education and improving access to therapy for a range of issues. They will address speech and language disorders, learning disabilities, autism, anxiety and depression, exercise and nutrition, asthma, diabetes and obesity.

“Now, more than ever, families need support,” Feion said. “It takes a community to build a bright future.”

Digital Platform to Monitor Lung Health 

Respiratory infections and chronic lung diseases are the third and fourth leading causes of death worldwide. Early and remote detection of respiratory problems is a critical unmet need that SDSU engineers, cancer experts, biologists, physiologists, public health, math and computational researchers will aim to address with a transformative digital health platform for lung health.

This novel blend of artificial intelligence and wireless sensors will be able to monitor lung health status in real-time for large numbers of people, and offer rapid digital diagnosis and intervention.

“Right now it’s not possible with the tests we have in the clinic,” said Joy Philips, an immunologist and research associate professor.

Engineering researchers led by mechanical engineering professor Kee Moon, will focus on developing smartphone-integrated, lightweight biosensing and monitoring devices using micro- and nanotechnologies that can be cost-effective in sharing patient data with medical teams. 

“Our sensors will be able to detect lung sounds and muscle activities, and alert doctors at the first sign of trouble,” Moon said. As an additional benefit, this device will increase and improve doctor-patient interactions and remove barriers of distance and transportation, physiologist Daniel Cannon said. 

Pulmonary experts in this collaborative team will look at repairing damage from smoking, aging and viral infections, while cancer researchers focus on advancing drug discovery. Computational and math experts will study lung development and how to speed up analysis. Physiologists will explore potential solutions to address how chronic lung diseases lead to poor quality of life and the inability to exercise.

Healthy Aging Across the Lifespan

By 2030, it’s estimated that San Diego’s population of older adults will double to one million, and diversity in ethnicity and gender orientation will increase by 30%. And older adults will outnumber children for the first time in the U.S. by 2035. 

Research has found intergenerational interactions between seniors and younger people improve health and longevity. The Center for Excellence in Aging and Longevity will draw on the expertise of social scientists to focus on workforce opportunities and longevity activities in pursuit of an “age-friendly” university. 

“An age-friendly university means that all ages are welcome, and seniors are not only accepted into universities but their classmates accept them as well,” said Diana Valasquez, a graduate student in rehabilitation. 

Gerontology major Emily Tran finds that each generation is still learning from each other and believes this program can help bridge the gap of misunderstandings between generations. 

Steven Hornberger, a professor of social work who leads this collaboration, envisions this center will align with California’s new master plan for aging. AARP, a group that focuses on issues for people over 50, will partner with the center to help make communities more livable.