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Episode 5: Prof Ann Blandford, digital health pioneer, on her career journey & work on long COVID

In this episode:

Anna Cox talks to Professor Ann Blandford, an expert in digital health. We cover how her rebellious streak led her to study maths at Cambridge before embarking on a career in computer science, the importance of progressive teachers and how they shaped her life as a student, and as a woman managing a career and a young family,  and about her research in digital health that’s empowering people with long COVID to try out what works for them when managing their health.

Ann Blandford is Professor of Human Computer Interaction in the Department of Computer Science at UCL and a member of UCLIC,  the UCL Interaction Centre. She served as director of UCLIC,  director of the UCL Institute of Digital Health and Deputy Director of the Institute of Healthcare Engineering. She was a Suffrage Science Award holder, a winner of the prestigious IFUPTC Thirteen Pioneer in Human Computer Interaction awards, and has been elected to the SIG CHI Academy.

Find out more about Ann’s research

 You can read Ann’s biography, find out more about her research publications, and find a list of her publications here: 

https://uclic.ucl.ac.uk/people/ann-blandford

Videos

UCL Lancet Lecture Series: 2020 UCL-Lancet Lecture: Global Health Preparedness in the Face of Emerging Epidemics.  

Jointly hosted by UCL Grand Challenges, UCL Institute for Global Health, and The Lancet, this online lecture presented key emerging lessons on global health preparedness as the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic, and implications for the future of global health. The event took place on 13th July and was recorded.  Ann Blandford was on the panel that responded to the lecture and Q&A session.

Lecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pqE48fmyRkw

Panel and Q&A session: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OuEbbysi-B4

Keynote talk at the Computing Conference 2018 on Technology that Works  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o6BLOoYsoEc

Talk for World Usability Day 2018 on designing Digital Health systems that are fit for purpose. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ktH4k_mxW3I

Connect with Ann on LinkedIn

https://uk.linkedin.com/in/ann-blandford-01586a2

Follow Ann on twitter

@annblandford

Credits

Music by ScottHolmesMusic.com

Producer: Clare Casson

Transcript eWorkLife podcast Season 1 Episode 5 – Interview with Ann Blandford

Prof Anna Cox

Hello, and welcome to a new episode of eWorkLife, a podcast where we talk about productivity, wellbeing and work life balance. We talk to scientists and others who can help us make the most of our technology to get our work done, to keep connected to others, and to support our health and well being. I’m Anna Cox, Professor of human computer interaction at UCL in London, and your host for this episode.

In today’s episode I’ll be talking to Professor Ann Blandford, an expert in digital health. We cover how her rebellious streak led her to study maths at Cambridge before embarking on a career in computer science, the importance of progressive teachers and how they shaped her life as a student, and as a woman managing a career and a young family,  and about her research in digital health that’s empowering people with long COVID to try out what works for them when managing their health. But before that, let’s listen to some top tips from our other guests about how we can use technology to survive the digital age.

Anna Cox

Now to today’s guest. Ann Blandford is Professor of Human Computer Interaction in the Department of Computer Science at UCL and a member of UCLIC,  the UCL Interaction Centre. She served as director of UCLIC,  director of the UCL Institute of Digital Health and Deputy Director of the Institute of Healthcare Engineering. She was a Suffrage Science Award holder, a winner of the prestigious IFUPTC Thirteen Pioneer in Human Computer Interaction awards, and has been elected to the SIG CHI Academy. So let’s get straight into it. Here’s my conversation with Ann.

Dave Cook

I’m Dave Cook, a researcher at UCL Anthropology. My top tip for using technologies to support your health is to put your device in your pocket, and let it quietly track your steps, and only allow it to interrupt you if you’re not getting up and moving about enough to take breaks.

Kathy Stawarz

So I’m Kathy Stawarz, a lecturer at Cardiff University. My top tip for using technology to support your health is to find an app or device that provides information that’s meaningful for you.

Anna Cox 

Welcome Ann and thanks for taking the time to talk to me.

Ann Blandford 

Hello. It’s a pleasure to join you today

Anna Cox 

So I wanted to start back at the beginning of your academic career, when as an undergraduate you studied maths at Cambridge, and I wondered whether you had always set your sights on going to Cambridge and always thought that maths was the way, was the thing for you, I suppose.

No, absolutely not. At GCE level which is the precursor to GCSE, I didn’t even think I was going to do well enough at that level to be able to go on and do further maths at A Level, so I kind of joined the double maths set, and then I promptly withdrew from it when I thought that my maths qualification wasn’t going to be good enough, and a fantastic maths teacher persuaded me that that was the wrong decision and I was capable of doing double maths at a level, which I did, and I did fine. Why did I go to do maths at university? Well, actually, I thought I would do computer science, but those – I was in the kind of school, even though it was a state school, that had a tradition of sending quite a few peoples to Oxford and Cambridge. And most of the double maths set people were kind of channelled into applying to Oxbridge. It wasn’t something that had occurred to me personally before that at all. But because we did, the rebel in me decided to apply to Cambridge rather than Oxford, because this favourite teacher was slightly pushing us towards Oxford,  and I just like, no, I want to make up my own mind, even though actually making my own mind up was more about not doing what I was told, than making a much more informed decision about it. But at that time, Cambridge didn’t actually offer a full degree in computer science, it only offered a third year course. So, one had to go in and do something else first, and because I was actually doing okay at maths, I went to do maths. And actually I quite enjoyed maths at Cambridge, and so I didn’t ever change to computer science, I continued through with maths.

So you said that you thought that you might do computer science at university. So how had you got sort of introduced to computer science as a subject even at school?

Ann Blandford 

Somehow in the maths lessons, or one set of maths lessons, we were taught a little bit about coding. And at that time the way to code was to fill in the paper form with lines of Fortran that we had learned, and then to imagine how this programme would work, send the coding form off to the Council offices where it was turned into a deck of punched cards, run through the council computer, and then we would get results a week later.  And actually I found this problem solving process kind of fascinating, working out how to persuade the computer to do what I wanted it to do. I think I enjoyed that problem solving, and that feedback that told you whether you’ve done it well or not. And that was the only experience of computing I’s had at school – what is very, very slow computing process – and it’s meant that as a computer scientist insofar as I might still be one, I’m very reflective about any code I write and I don’t just hack stuff up, put stuff in, see what happens. I tend to be very reflective about actually working out for myself when my code is likely to work before I put it in, which doesn’t work so well in the 21st century actually!

Anna Cox 

That seems like quite a sort of progressive thing that… I don’t expect that was really normal in schools. If they didn’t have computers in school, you wouldn’t imagine they’d be introducing pupils to competing.

Ann Blandford 

I guess you’re right. I’ve just never really thought about it. Yeah it was a sixth form college that I went to that had previously been the boys grammar school, so there were still some years of boys coming up below. Girls appeared from the Girls Grammar School or the girls secondary modern school school – we’re really going back here! And I think it was about progressive teachers who didn’t question or didn’t point out to the pupils that actually what they were doing was radical and interesting and different. But, yeah, you’re right on reflection it was, but I’ve never really thought about it that way. At Cambridge, we had a little computer lab in the maths department, and we did some simulation based computing, you know, we were modelling flow systems and kind of physical systems at various times, and it was only after I graduated that I realised that that had been quite radical. In fact, at that time as well. So I think there were just a few kind of forward thinking teachers at both school and university who could see the potential of introducing computers into the curriculum, well before it was the default.

Anna Cox 

So when you finished university, what was the next step for you? Did you, did you go and work or did you go straight into doing a PhD.

Ann Blandford 

I went to work. Because I got a double first in maths, everybody assumed I would go on and do a PhD. And although I enjoyed maths to certain extent, I never felt that I could really do it. I never felt confident doing maths. I thought of myself as being competent at doing exams, rather than being competent at maths. And of course one can’t, on reflection, one can’t be competent at exams without being reasonably competent at the subject, but I saw it that way so I didn’t actually want to do a PhD in maths. I didn’t feel competent to do that. One might say that’s a gender thing – that women perhaps have less confidence in their own abilities. So I went into industry, I wanted to experience what it was like in the real, “the real” world at the age of 21. And I’d half thought of switching, not only to computing during my degree, but I’d also half thought of switching to engineer,  but I looked at quite how hard the engineers work and how many hours they spent in lectures and the labs and decided that I wanted to do more various things in my life that precluded switching to engineering at that point. But anyway I joined an engineering company at the age of 21, with a view to doing a software engineering kind of career track. So I did an engineering training scheme, which involved doing engineering practice, you know, I learned to use lathes and milling machines and do sheet-metal work, which felt like sewing but with metal rather than with cotton and thread, and various other kind of things. Oh and some electronics as well, but actually I got steered into a sort of software engineering track, which was probably much better for my skills. I stayed in industry for 18 months, but then there was a bit of a blip in the industry and a lot of my friends were made redundant, and even though I wasn’t made redundant myself, I started to look elsewhere, and found a job at Queen Mary University of London, except it was Queen Mary College at the time, doing software development for teaching. So kind of computer based learning systems. So I moved to QM and started to develop educational software using that famous Fortran. 

Anna Cox 

Was that in the computer science department or in Education Department?

Ann Blandford  

No it was in the engineering department. And again, I think, I think it’s another example of, in this case an engineering lead, who had a vision for how computing could support the engineering curriculum. And it was partly because of that time, Queen Mary was one of the few universities in the country that offered a course in nuclear engineering – building nuclear power plants and similar. Of course you don’t want to let undergraduate students loose on a nuclear power plant, though actually there was one that they could go and use occasionally down at Greenwich. But anyway, they wanted to do most of their experiments in a safe environment, i.e. through software simulations, so students could safely, blow up, and experiment with the parameters on nuclear power plants using software simulations, and our job was to build those simulations for the students to learn about. Finding Energy and Nuclear Stability is one of the ones that I remember particularly well because the acronym was BEANS, but having set that up for, for nuclear engineering, actually the aeronautical engineers and civil engineers and various other electronic engineers also saw the value of doing simulations as part of their courses, so we ended up building software simulations for students right across the faculty, basically.

Anna Cox 

And so why did you leave?

Ann Blandford 

Because I had kids.  And I tried to continue working through but this was a time when continuing to work with preschool children was really pretty challenging. I recently dug out a book on pregnancy and, what year was it –  1986 – and the assumption was that you would take three months off and go back. Then maternity rights were really quite limited.  And it was hard. There were very few childcare options. So, I did go back when my older daughter was three months old. I went back full time. It was a huge struggle. She didn’t settle into any form of childcare, it was just five months of nightmare. She was chucked out by two or three different childminders because she just wouldn’t settle. In my final month at work, I was at work, with a baby, either on my hip, or asleep underneath my desk. And that was really hard, you know, it just wasn’t a good time to be a working parent, if you were also responsible for childcare, and somehow it was a time when it was still the default that the mother would take that role. I mean we did discuss it as a couple, but there were so few male role models of stay at home parents, that we just couldn’t work out how to make it work. So I continue to do a little bit of work. I continued to do like 10 hours a week of consultancy work. All down while said small child was asleep. So kind of catching the naps and doing bits of programming while she was asleep and

Anna Cox 

Were you doing that from home?

Ann Blandford 

Yeah, Yes I must have had a computer at home. I can’t remember now, um, I think it was the early days of what we called laptops but were really big, luggable computers. I remember having Commodore Pets at work. And it was the early days of BBC Micros and things were kind of getting smaller, they definitely weren’t the size of a modern laptop or a tablet or a smartphone. I remember installing new memory into the mini computer that we had in the lab, and it went up from 64 kilobytes to 80 kilobytes. And this was enormous, you know your smartphone now has much, much more than that now. Megabytes, at least if not, gigabytes. Things have changed a lot.

Anna Cox 

So when you left that job, did you see it as you were stopping working, or did you see it as I’m going to part time.

Ann Blandford 

I initially saw it as stopping work because I couldn’t see how to keep going. And that was actually very hard, but I didn’t feel I had any choice at that time. So there was a gap even before the part time, the 10 hours a week, kind of came in because that had to be negotiated, so it took a little while for that to come through. But then once it did come through it ran through both the older child becoming a toddler, and then me having a second child, and the first few months of her life.

Anna Cox 

So at what point did you think, oh, actually I’m going to go and do a PhD?

Ann Blandford 

I think it was before having the older child, there was always that thought that I did want to do a PhD, I wanted to do it in something that interested me. I was really interested in computer based learning, at that time, and artificial intelligence was trendy. So for me that was a question about should I start a PhD, and in my mind that would mean me delaying having a family, or have a family, while I was still relatively young and delay doing the PhD, and obviously I went for the second of those options. But then when my younger daughter was three months old, I had that first moment of freedom. I had a bath without a small baby, she was actually asleep! I took the newspaper to the bath, and had lots of bubbles in the bath, and I was reading the newspaper in the bath, and I saw an advert for a PhD studentship in computer based learning and artificial intelligence at the Open University, and I just looked at it, and I thought, “That’s what I’ve been waiting for. Having a three month old baby is not perhaps the best time to be starting a PhD. But I’ve got to try it, otherwise I won’t know whether it’s possible or not”. So I, I just pointed the advert to my husband and said, tell me I can’t do that to which his response was, “Well, give it a try”. Obviously I had to go for an interview. I remember, expressing milk, so that I could drive up to Milton Keynes for the interview, leaving both children with a friend who’s got children of the same age. And so I knew that I had a finite time to drive up to Milton Keynes, have this interview and get back before the next feed, but hey, the children survived that. And, in fact, I could probably have said at least another 20 minutes. Time wasn’t as critical as I thought it was. So, yeah, I got an offer from that, I think they knew they were taking a risk in offering a PhD studentship to somebody with two preschool children, but they took that risk, and it paid off. And I got my PhD in three years.

Anna Cox 

How did you find kind of combining doing your PhD with having two young children?

Ann Blandford 

So I basically did it in three days a week. I had childcare for three days a week. At the time my husband was working flexible hours so he worked nine day fortnights, which meant that he could take a day off a fortnight to look after the girls as well. And I tried to be home well in time for bed time. The older one, who was the one who’d been having difficulty settling with childminders when she was younger, yeah I think we found a good child minder this time, who took both girls, because, yeah, There weren’t, really weren’t nurseries or other childcare options that you could afford on a PhD stipend at that time, so really childminders was the only option for us. It was the only thing we could afford as there were very few nurseries. So, this time we struck lucky and had a lovely child minder who had her own three children, and my younger daughter absolutely hit it off with her son, who she tormented to death, but he seemed to really enjoy being tormented by this little thing, so it worked out. So I was confident about the care I’d got for the girls, and they did that in kind of three and a half days a week. Effectively I had three and a half days a week to study. Plus when they were really little, I had evenings after they went to bed, though by my third year, they were staying up later, and the kind of cognitive effort of doing that final writing up meant that I often didn’t have the energy to still be working after they went to bed. So I really was doing just three and a half days a week by the time, in the last few months.

Anna Cox 

Did you, when you were doing your PhD, did you have it in mind as the stepping stone to an academic career?

Ann Blandford 

No, I thought I was going to go into industry and earn a fortune. Because the AI jobs that were being advertised at the time I started my PhD, were really well paid, and really attractive. And in those three years that I was doing my PhD basically the bottom fell out of that style of AI market. And so, AI went into one of its several kind of really dry periods when there was very little work available, it was unclear where the discipline was going. It’s since transformed from being what was at that time called “good old fashioned AI”, which is kind of production systems, to being the kind of modern, more modern statistical flavour of AI neural nets, very large data sets, a form of AI that I know very little about.  So my PhD is in the old fashioned kind, but it went through this real dip as I was completing my PhD. I was thinking about options at that point. I actually just wrote to six research groups that were within commuting distance of my home and said hey, if you’ve got any jobs any small, possible roles for me? Here’s my CV, and I actually had interviews with three of them, even though none of them was advertising a job at the time, and ended up going to Cambridge, not to the university but to the Applied Psychology Unit where Richard Young and Phil Barnard, were just coming to the end of the first Amadeus project. I think it had four months left to run, and the researcher on the project had just left so they had like four months money, and they were hoping that they would get a follow-on project but they didn’t know at that time, so I was basically employed for four months, with both parties, viewing this as very long interview basically, like an internship, so that I could find out what it was like commuting, an hour each way to Cambridge, every day, and they could work out whether I fitted in their project and in their team.  And it did work out obviously because I stayed there for four and a half years for the whole of the follow-on project. The children were obviously growing up through this phae. The childminder who had been so fantastic through my PhD, realised that she wanted to do something different with her life. So, the first few months of me working involved the children going to a different friend every day of the week: if it’s Thursday, then it must be with so-and-so, so I need to go to the correct house to pick up the girls.  Actually I’ve missed a bit in all that because I think that was a year before the girls went to school, where we had a nanny, temporarily. That must have been while I was working. My memories of the precise timing of everything clearly a little bit vague,  but, you know, I was at the Applied Psychology unit for four and a half years I think it was. And the girls were going through primary school and going to a friend’s house after school as childcare, so I would go to work really early in the morning.  I’d be in the office by half seven every morning, which means I left at six and my husband would take the girls to school. Yeah, he’d do all the breakfast routine with the girls. And then I would get back by five o’clock. So it’s like I did the evening routine and storytelling and bath time and all those things.

Anna Cox 

And so was that job, an AI type job that you started in?

Ann Blandford 

So that was a cognitive science job. It was doing cognitive modelling, using SOAR, which was fairly popular cognitive modelling architecture at that time. So it was using my AI skills but kind of turning them on its head. It’s the same style of thinking as my AI PhD, but applying them to modelling people to understand how people interact with technology, rather than modelling people to make the technology pretend this human, if you like, so it was the same kind of thing but applied in an HCI context rather than applied to make technology seem cleverer than it actually is. Yeah.

Anna Cox 

So was that your first introduction to HCI as an area then?

Ann Blandford 

Yeah, yeah so that was my introduction to HCI completely, and you’ve continued in that area ever since.

Anna Cox 

Yes, and now it seems like your work has moved away from that sort of educational content more towards looking at digital health. So what was the story about that transition?

Ann Blandford 

Um, never touched education as a theme after my PhD, mainly because at that time, getting funding for projects was really hard. Every subject seems to have times when it’s in fashion and times when it’s out of fashion. And obviously when I moved to the Applied Psychology Unit, it was to do a particular project that was entirely an HCI project. And there was no educational technology project that I could join at that time, there just weren’t any that were being funded in the south east of England, as far as I could find. So I moved into HCI, more specifically, and when I then moved to Middlesex as a lecturer, obviously I had some choices about what kinds of research I would be trying to do. And I made an explicit choice not to try to go back into educational technology because it wasn’t clear who was funding it at that point.  I mean there have been technology enhanced learning initiatives since, but that time, there weren’t. And so I moved in a different direction. I did more on the cognitive modelling, did more kind of safety critical systems research. And one is somewhat driven by the opportunities, and which opportunities come up, and which ones one takes, and nothing really pulled me back into education as a discipline. It wasn’t that I explicitly voted with my feet, it was that there weren’t many opportunities in that area at the time when I was making the critical decisions.

Anna Cox 

But now you’re extremely passionate about digital health and devote all of your time to it as an area to sort of improve. So, what is it about it that sort of captured you?

Ann Blandford 

So there was a time, around the late 1990s, where I was doing some projects that were health related, and other projects that were not. And it became quickly apparent that health was an area that you had to be either in or out, because the ecosystem, and frankly the politics behind health care are changing so rapidly that you can’t just kind of dip in and out very easily.  So, actually at that point I kind of opted out, but I then found myself doing research on bizarre things like safety critical chocolate machines, which didn’t feel very credible, frankly, I mean, obviously the, the heart of that was safety critical systems, brackets, “find your application area that is small enough and simple enough to do some reasoning about” closed brackets.  We had various projects, which might well have got funded in control rooms, and similar kinds of clearly safety critical contexts, but I think I hit another one of those points where I had some applications in healthcare, and some applications in non health care, and the healthcare ones came through – by which I mean grant applications in healthcare – and the healthcare ones came through and the non healthcare ones just didn’t, and so I decided that I was going to commit to that and actually it has changed a lot in the last 10 years. So a lot of the research questions and opportunities are really different now from the ones that were prominent 10 or 15 years ago, whenever it was I made that shift, because it was a bit of a gradual moving from one focus to a different focus. Yeah, I decided to commit in that area, and so I’ve stuck there now.

Anna Cox 

So it seems like an area that obviously has huge potential to radically change, not just the way that people in the UK live but people all over the world, and what are the, the real challenges that you’re kind of grappling with at the moment in your research?

Ann Blandford 

The biggest challenge, I think right now is talking about systems as complex systems. Computers naturally deal well with problems that are decomposable into smaller and smaller problems, and how people behave in predictable, or prescribable ways with the technology. And actually what we’ve learned is that healthcare is really complex, you know, even an individual’s health is really complex, nevermind when you put that individual in a melieu and in an environment with lots of other individuals, some of whom are patients, some of whom are professionals and expect them all to work with technology, well together. We’ve got to rethink those two kind of layers of computing – the technology layer and the socio-technical system layer so that they actually talk together better than they do right now.  And I don’t know how to deal with that. But I think it’s a really really important challenge to acknowledge the complexity and actually start to reason about it and deal and address it directly, rather than continuing to develop technology that prescribes how people are meant to use it because people can’t use it the way that it’s mostly been designed to be used. And that applies for from everything from apps for health and well being, through to major medical devices that are run by software and have one or more operators, and technologies in between where the technology is small but the teams are big, and old technologies are meant to work together somehow but are traditionally glued together by the people doing the things that need to be done to make them actually work well together. Yeah.

Anna Cox 

So one of the things that… sort of recent events in terms of the Coronavirus pandemic, it’s really changed so many things about the way many people are living their lives at the moment so, you know, we’re communicating using digital technology. Lots of people are using technology more for work than they might have done before. How do you think this new context is impacting our use of digital health tools

Ann Blandford 

There have been a lot of changes in the last 12 or 15 months, both in terms of what we expect of technology and of how we use it, and you know that obviously starts with things like having to do a lot of health care, more at a distance now, where possible. So there have been a lot of advances in telehealth solutions. I have to say some of those are real compromises, and don’t deliver the same quality of care, as being physically co-located – being able to see each other, being able to touch, being able to communicate through all rich channels that we naturally communicate with when we are co-located. So I think that when the pandemic is over, actually, there will be some bounce back, but we’ve also learned to use a lot more different kinds of technologies. So I’m involved in a project about helping people to manage Long COVID, which is of course a major problem worldwide at the moment, and we don’t have the capacity to treat people in the individual ways that that we would all like to be treated as human beings. But we don’t have, actually, the knowledge, you know what, we’re still, we still don’t really understand this condition we’re learning about it. As more and more people are experiencing it, particularly as more and more people are describing their personal experiences and as more clinicians are getting engaged with trying to understand the underlying causes of particular individual experiences, people are having to accept the fact that they need to do quite a lot of self management, because we don’t have the capacity or the variety of clinicians who are needed to actually support people in a really close way as they manage both mental health and physical health aspects of the condition. I think one of the things that it’s forcing the health service to rethink, is the historical siloing between different clinical specialisms. So there are people who focus on mental health, and people who focus on aspects of physical health, and they often acknowledge that the others also matter but they don’t tend to talk to each other, and with a condition like chronic Long COVID, they actually do have to talk to each other, because somebody who is experiencing breathlessness, fatigue, brain fog, anxiety, depression, and various other random symptoms that somehow seem to have emerged with this virus., it requires really good multidisciplinary teams to work together to actually deliver coordinated ways of helping people to manage, and coordinated advice and coordinated guidance and coordinated monitoring of people. But also we are learning about the condition with everybody who unfortunately experiences it, so it’s not as if we have the answers yet, the answers are all kind of contingent, and we are experimenting. You know people who are living with the condition are having to experiment, to some degree with their own lives, and with what works for them, because there seems to be a level at which each individual responds differently to the various symptoms that are apparent with this condition. Not everybody has the same set of symptoms, yet they will seem to go back to this, having had the virus, and it’s impacting different people in different ways. So, as a project, we have a very multidisciplinary team led by Elizabeth Murray, obviously, my role is thinking about how to make the technology that will be a part of that care delivery, easy to use, and engaging, but also effective, and that’s not my specialism obviously:  the effectiveness, that’s, that’s down to clinicians really not me, but putting those bits of being engaging, making people want to come back and learn more about their own condition, encouraging people to engage with what works for them, encouraging people to pace themselves, because one of the issues that has been found with Long COVID is that people feel like they’re having a good day, and so they will exert themselves perhaps more than is appropriate, because they feel good today so why not, and then they suffered kind of crash, what’s called the crash, where their energy levels just go through the floor, and they often can’t get out of bed for the next two or three days. So we need to find ways to help people to manage both the physical and the mental aspects, take time, and to be patient and not expect this to get better, overnight or in a fortnight. For some people, obviously, many people, they do recover quite quickly. But then there are the people who don’t and we don’t actually understand that, but are trying to develop technology that will help.

Anna Cox 

So, it sounds like your vision for this is that the technology really empowers both the clinicians in terms of collecting data and understanding the condition itself, but also empowering the patient in understanding their own condition and self managing it. So I wanted to ask to what extent you’ve kind of taken – because I think that that theme is, it comes up time and time again in the work that you’ve done – and I wonder to what extent you have embraced that in your own life in terms of using technology to empower yourself in terms of how you manage your life or your, your health and well being.

Ann Blandford 

I use technology to some degree but probably not as much as some other people. And that’s partly because I’m lucky in that I generally have pretty good health, so I don’t have to manage the negatives of health. So for me, using technology is mostly about managing or tracking the positives. So, I’m a rock climber, and that is my main form of both physical and mental therapy, in that it is obviously physically demanding and interesting and forces one body to move in ways that no other sport does really – or few other sports, anyway. But it’s also been a huge mental therapy because you get, you’re getting out into the sea cliffs and mountains and whatever, and you’re having to focus on what you’re doing there. Because if you don’t focus on just on that you’re liable to hurt yourself quite badly, so it’s very immersive and of course the last year I haven’t had that, so I’ve had to develop other ways of managing both my physical health, my mental health. And for a long time that was walking and I was just using a very simple app to track my step count and my to do list that every day included ‘walk’and I’d tick off when I’d done it, and most days did involve some other form of exercise as well like Pilates or Zumba. Then in the autumn my daughter and I decided that we would learn to run. So we did the couch to 5k together, by which I mean that we were on the phone to each other, me running around Hartfordshire and her running round North London, but completely together, you know, we’d synchronise absolutely to the second, and we have the same coach on our separate versions of couch to 5k because we learned that the different coaches had slightly different timings. And so obviously that I used that app for nine weeks, and actually sort of fell in love with running, but I think when I can climb again I will stop running.  I’m actually having to redo it again now because I injured my ankle. So I actually had to stop for a few weeks in the new year while my ankle mended itself. So I’m now starting again at the beginning and I’m now in week four, and I do it on my own at the moment. So I’m using that programme, and I’m kind of sticking to it and I’m finding it really helpful. I had moved beyond that programme around Christmas time, and had done a little bit just with a running app that told me how far I was going and what my pace was and whatever, but I’m not sure that that really helped me because I do have to manage my legs, you know, my, my ankles are quite prone to going AWOL on me, so actually trying to push my performance is not a good idea for me, I’ve realised. I have to just use running as a way of getting out and getting some fresh air. I went this morning, you know, it was sunny first thing this morning, and I enjoyed the only half hour of sunshine we’re likely to get today, running around my local park and getting dew in my shoes. So I don’t use a lot of apps myself for specifically for physical activity or… and I certainly don’t use them for diet or anything like that, mainly because the ones I’ve seen for diet just require too much input too much time, too much effort. And I’ve got other things to do with my life.

Anna Cox 

Well I’m just looking at the time and thinking, knowing, that we only have a certain amount of your time today, because you do have other things to do with your life. So I think we ought to stop there, but thank you very much for talking to me I could talk to you for at least another hour. So thanks very much.

Ann Blandford 

Pleasure.

Anna Cox

Thanks so much to Professor Ann Blandford. You can find her @annblandford on twitter, you can find a link to her website and access to the show notes for this episode on our website eWorkLife.co.uk where you can also find more evidence-based tips on using technology to support work and well being, and a link to our new eWorkLife radio app.

Prof Anna Cox

I’d love to hear your feedback on this episode. You can find me on Twitter @AnnaCox_ If you enjoyed this episode, please tell your friends. And you can also leave us a star rating and review wherever you get your podcasts.  Thanks as always to our producer Clare Casson. This episode was sponsored by the EPSRC GetAMoveOn Network+.  Music by ScottHolmesMusic.com.