Blazing New Trails in Digital Child Health: ‘Canadian parents deserve information that is trusted, practical, and accessible’

Postdoctoral Fellow James Benoit pioneering first mobile health app to improve health decision-making for acute childhood illness among Canadian parents.

29 March 2021

University of Alberta post-doctoral fellow James Benoit is tapping into his training in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and digital technologies to create the first mobile health app targeting acute childhood illness for parents using Canadian-relevant research in children’s health.

Digital health tools, such as mobile phone apps, offer a unique opportunity for readily accessible, evidence-based information for those seeking medical advice. 

Benoit — Faculty of Nursing and Department of Pediatrics Postdoctoral Fellow (PDF) — says there are different needs for how digital health information is communicated, and this is especially true for the diverse population of Canadian parents. 

“Apps offer a uniquely accessible, scalable, and untapped solution for giving parents access to high-quality, actionable health information about their sick child,” explains Benoit, whose 2020 Postdoctoral Fellow Award is funded by the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation through the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute (WCHRI).

Dr. Benoit’s post-doctoral fellowship is jointly funded and supervised by the Faculty of Nursing and the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry — an interdisciplinary effort to learn more about and co-develop high-quality evidence-based health resources for diverse groups of parents.

We spoke with Dr. Benoit about his passion for working at the intersection of technology and health and his view on the potential power digital health tools hold to empower Canadian parents with the best-available health resources. 

How did your educational background prepare you for this project? 

I did undergraduate training in honours integrated science at UBC, focusing on behavioural neuroscience. My thesis explored whether cognitive effort — the experience of effortful thinking — could be reproduced in an animal model. 

I went on to do a Master’s in applied ethics at UBC; this work focused on whether video games cause aggression in children, and consequently, whether violent video game sales to minors should be regulated. 

After working in sustainability technology at Simon Fraser University, I moved to Edmonton to start my doctorate at the U of A in Psychiatry (graduating in 2019), where I worked on using machine learning in personalized and precision medicine to predict whether or not a patient’s depression would be improved by treatment.

Can you explain more in-depth what your mobile health app for parents  entails?

This project — designed by Drs. Shannon Scott and Lisa Hartling after five years of collaboration through their CIHR Foundation Grant and funding through their Stollery Science Lab Distinguished Researcher Awards — entails making the first mobile health app for parents using Canadian-relevant research about children’s acute illness. To use the app, parents will verbally tell the app their child’s symptoms (barky cough, runny nose, crying, etc.), and this description will be matched to the correct health resource using speech recognition. Health information will be presented as a set of health resources (e.g. videos, infographics) in the app. These are based on best-available research evidence, co-developed with Canadian parents and healthcare professionals to ensure they resonate with parents. 

Data from this app will help us build a picture of how parents find and act on health information in apps, and how parental identity (e.g. gender, race, and age) influences app use and health decisions. These insights will let us iteratively improve our app as we gather more data.

How did you become involved in this interdisciplinary project?

In a funny turn of events, Drs. Scott and Hartling contacted me after reading a profile of my work from a previous postdoctoral position on the Department of Pediatrics website. They were interested in improving health information access by integrating a machine learning approach with their work in pediatric knowledge translation and evidence synthesis. I thought their idea was a prudent, highly novel application of AI that addressed a very frustrating aspect of family healthcare for many parents: accessing reliable pediatric health information on-demand. We began discussing how a project like this would look, and ended up agreeing that a postdoctoral fellowship would be the best way to work together developing these tools.

How have Drs. Shannon Scott and Lisa Hartling mentored and prepared you for your research?

Drs. Scott and Hartling have been preparing me to pursue an academic tenure-track career, and a key part of that has been mentoring me through the early career planning process. This involves connecting me to other postdoctoral fellows who have shared their experiences, guiding me through the process of developing a research program, and sharing opportunities for professional development. Drs. Scott and Dr. Hartling have also shared lessons learned from their own careers developing a nationally recognized research program.

How does it feel to work with an interdisciplinary team? Is this something you have a lot of experience with?

Working with an interdisciplinary team is always a pleasure, and one of the reasons I enjoy working in a field at the intersection of medicine and technology; working on these teams has been my norm on digital health projects. 

Interdisciplinary work benefits from multiple perspectives: when we are building an app for parents, we will involve team members with expertise ranging from clinical experience, to qualitative methods, to computing science, to knowledge translation. I think that as we negotiate the path toward cohort-based, and eventually fully personalized medicine, these teams will drive innovative digital health projects forward.

What does receiving the WCHRI PDF Award mean to you? How will this award advance your project?

I was honoured to receive a WCHRI PDF award, and hope our work will contribute meaningfully to improving children's health. This award will support our work leading innovative approaches to knowledge translation, and importantly, developing an app with high-quality evidence-based content in children's health. My goal in pursuing this research with Drs. Scott and Hartling is to learn the processes they have used to consistently create nationally-awarded, high-quality evidence-based knowledge translation tools in children's health. I hope to contribute to this field myself by embedding and evaluating the effectiveness of these tools in a highly accessible platform for parents.

What impact do you hope this project makes once completed?

I think Canadian parents deserve information for their child’s health that is trusted, practical, and accessible. By working with parents to co-create an app that embodies these values, we hope to contribute a useful tool to their digital care options in the near future. In the long-term, we hope that by pioneering this work, we will establish a well-defined process for co-creating health apps with parents.

Any plans for the future? 

I would like to expand the scope of this work to examine how else we might augment knowledge translation with machine learning to improve children’s health. Apps have provided a useful tool for health researchers, and I would like to expand our ability to simultaneously provide high-quality information and capture how parents integrate this knowledge with health decisions for their children.

Interested in learning more? A joint effort between the Alberta Research Centre for Health Evidence (ARCHE) and Evidence in Child Health to Enhance Outcomes (ECHO) research programs develop free health resources based on the latest research to help families and caregivers care for their sick children. These evidence-based knowledge translation tools are available online, at