New Doctoral Training Centre in Digital Health with £11.7 Million Investment

Ulster University has partnered with University College London to secure funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to establish a Centre for Doctoral Training in Digital Health Technologies.

Recruiting 75 PhD researchers, the £11.7 m Centre will train the next generation of digital health researchers and innovators who will develop and advance the future state of digital health technologies.

Forming part of the UK’s biggest ever investment in engineering and physical sciences doctoral skills at a total of £1 billion, the Ulster University-UCL partnership is one of sixty-five Centres for Doctoral Training.

Accommodating 4,000 doctoral students over the next eight years, the Centres for Doctoral Training are part of the UK Research and Innovation plans to address strategically important areas including AI, quantum technologies, semiconductors, telecoms, and health technology.

The Ulster University team is led by Professor Dewar Finlay, Professor Jim McLaughlin and Professor Brian Meenan from the School of Engineering, Professor Assumpta Ryan from the School of Nursing and Paramedic Science and Professor Raymond Bond from the School of Computing.

EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Digital Health Technologies

With unprecedented pressure on healthcare systems, exacerbated by the burdens of infectious and chronic diseases, an ageing population, inequalities, fragmented systems and workforce shortages, new technological approaches and novel digital solutions are required to enable transformational improvement of care pathways and outcomes.

However, it is recognised that the current cross-domain workforce skills deficit has the potential to hinder progress towards the creation of new solutions and risks advancement in digital health, limiting capacity to tackle these health challenges.

Established as one single centre hosted across Ulster University and UCL, the centre will provide specialist training for researchers and innovators in digital health technologies for the community-acute care (home-hospital) ecosystem.

By training researchers to address immediate local and national health challenges while working towards a range of broader Sustainable Development Goals, the CDT will avoid traditional disciplinary silos, instead taking a holistic approach to research and innovation. Researchers will examine a wide range of subjects including materials, sensors and medical devices, human-computer interaction, and behavioural science.

The PhD projects will be underpinned by technology innovations delivering projects spanning four key themes:

1. Diagnostic & Prognostic Indications.

2. Treatment & Care Optimisation

3. Disease Tracking, Surveillance & Modelling

4. Health Data Security, Interoperability & Sharing.

Students will work on focused and bespoke research projects within each theme ranging from the development of AI based smartphone retinal scanning technology to quantum sensors for infectious disease surveillance in wastewater.

The Centre for Doctoral Training in Digital Health Technologies will combine academic and healthcare expertise with health data access, industry partnerships, digital innovation, business, and entrepreneurship.

Researchers on the four-year PhD programmes will be registered at either Ulster University or UCL, with an anticipated 50:50 split between the institutions. Following an individual skills assessment, each researcher will be equipped with a personal training plan for their four years and will conduct a combination of group training across the research themes and a three-month secondment in an industry or healthcare setting.

Professor Dewar Finlay, Ulster University Head of School of Engineering and Ulster University Lead, commented:

“The centre is an exciting development as it provides the ideal vehicle to develop the next generation of highly skilled digital health researchers.  This comes at a critical time for us as we make significant investments in our research provision around Digital Heath going forward. We are also delighted to have been able to strategically partner with UCL in this initiative and, in turn, leverage the significant combined track record in Healthcare Technology research across both institutions.”

Professor Liam Maguire, Ulster University Pro Vice-Chancellor (PVC) Research, said:

“This funding enables us to build on our significant research credentials and body of existing research in digital healthcare technologies. Ulster University is leading a related and complimentary Belfast Regional City Deal investment of £43 million, developing a Centre of Digital Healthcare Technology which will host these researchers and enable us to work towards transforming healthcare, not just in Northern Ireland but further afield.”

Professor Chris Nugent, Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Head of the School of Computing at Ulster University, has been appointed as a member of the Irish Government’s Commission on Care for Older People.

The Irish Government’s Programme for Government: Our Shared Future (2020) commits to the establishment of ‘a commission to examine care and supports for older people’.

The Commission on Care for Older People is charged with examining the provision of health and social care services and supports for older people across the continuum of care and with making recommendations to the Government for their strategic developments. It will also oversee the establishment of a cross-departmental group to examine how to optimise support for positive ageing across the life-course.

The launch of the Commission and the appointment of its members was announced by Irish Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, and Irish Minister of State for Mental Health and Older People, Mary Butler, with the Commission members providing expertise across the areas of geriatrics, gerontology, health economics, health policy and management, primary care, health ethics, health technologies, and ageing and disability, as well as representation of the community and voluntary sector and of older people.

More about Professor Chris Nugent:

Professor Chris Nugent holds the position of Professor of Biomedical Engineering, and he is based within the School of Computing at Ulster University.

In 2016, he was awarded the Senior Distinguished Research Fellowship from Ulster University.

His research within biomedical engineering addresses the themes of the development and evaluation of technologies to support ambient assisted living. Specifically, this has involved research in the topics of mobile based reminding solutions, activity recognition and behaviour modelling and technology adoption modelling.

He has published extensively in these areas with papers spanning theoretical, clinical and biomedical engineering domains.

Chris has been a grant holder of Research Projects funded by National, European and International funding bodies.

He is the co-PI of the Connected Health Innovation Centre at Ulster University and is actively involved in the developments of Centre for Digital Health Technologies as part of the Belfast Region City Deal.

On his appointment to the Commission on Care for Older people, Professor Chris Nugent said:

“I am delighted to have been provided with the opportunity to be a part of this Commission. This is a significant opportunity to offer recommendations for new developments in the provision of health and social care for older persons.”

Addressing the Commission at its inaugural meeting, Minister Mary Butler said :

“The breadth of the expertise and experience of the members of the Commission will ensure that the Commission’s deliberations and recommendations are informed by emerging good practice and lessons learned nationally and internationally.

“By appointing representatives of the community and voluntary sectors, and importantly of older people themselves, I am hopeful the Commission’s work will be better informed by the lived experience of older people across the country. This will ensure that we can deliver access to timely, high-quality, person-centred, integrated care in the most appropriate settings.

“I have every confidence that the work of the Commission will have a hugely positive and lasting impact on ensuring that Ireland remains one of the best countries in which to age well.”

The work of the Commission will be advanced through three modules, which will be undertaken sequentially, with the first two modules focusing on the provision of health and social care services and supports for older people and the creation of a framework for their overarching strategic development. The third module will focus on the development of a costed and detailed implementation plan for the selected options to enable positive ageing in Irish society.

The Commission will submit reports for the consideration of the Minister for Health and the Minister of State for Mental Health and Older People at the conclusion of each module.

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