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Rebecca Barnard

2017-04-06 10:44

Meet Cloudy Epidemiologist, Dr John McBeth


Can you explain what an epidemiologist is?

Epidemiologists study patterns in diseases, looking at the frequency with which these occur and their possible causes and effects, often within human populations. Traditionally, epidemiologists are thought of as the people who study disease outbreaks and the causes, examining the locations and people that are affected to try and inform current treatments, and even prevent future outbreaks. As epidemiologists we help to underpin a variety of clinical decisions and can influence polices and public health.

My work at the Arthritis Research UK Centre for Epidemiology focusses on the epidemiology of arthritis and associated symptoms, particularly chronic pain and sleep disturbance. Essentially, I use the traditional epidemiological techniques to understand who is affected by arthritis or other symptoms which we might be interested in, and to see if we can explain why they may be affected more than others.

What is your role on the Cloudy team?

I am one of the senior researchers on the Cloudy team and have used my previous research experience to help to design the study, all the way through from the funding application, to the app design and onto data analysis. Although I joined the team because I have previous experience in population-based studies, Cloudy is a project like no other! I am fortunate enough to have been able to participate in radio interviews, talk to members of the public at science festivals and meet some really innovative data scientists at The Alan Turing Institute, Google and IBM Watson.

How did you end up working at The University of Manchester?

I graduated from the University of Dundee with a degree in Psychology and originally planned to stay in Manchester for only a short while on my way to London. During my time at the University of Manchester I worked as a research assistant and was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to study for a PhD with Professor Alan Silman at the (then) Arthritis Research Campaign's Epidemiology Unit. My PhD examined the epidemiology of chronic widespread pain and I so enjoyed my time working in 'the North' that I haven't continued on my journey to London – at least not full time!

What are your research interests, and how do these relate to the Cloudy study?

Broadly speaking my research interests focus on chronic pain. I am interested in understanding how chronic pain develops, why some people are affected more than others and factors which change the long-term outcome of pain conditions. By understanding the reasons why people are affected by things like chronic pain and possible reasons why pain can flare up, we will be in a better position to help patients cope with their condition and maybe one day even stop them from developing pain at all.

For me, Cloudy is really exciting because it gives us enormous opportunities to tackle so many of these questions. That's because with so many participants giving us data for such a long period of time, we will finally be in a position to identify groups of people who experience pain differently. We will be able to identify periods of time when pain is worse than normal and hopefully work out what factors, including the weather, contribute to this happening. Once we have a better idea of how and why people's pain changes across a week, month or even a year, we will be able to better help design interventions to minimise the impact of pain.

Are you working on any other project alongside Cloudy, and can you tell us a bit about these?

At the moment, I am working on three exciting projects across the Universities of Manchester, Aberdeen and Keele. The first is a new project called QUASAR which stands for “Quality of life, sleep and rheumatoid arthritis", which we're particularly excited about. In this study participants will be asked to use a smartphone app similar to that used in the Cloudy study and a sleep monitor for 30 days. We are asking them to do this because we know that lots of people with rheumatoid arthritis report reduced quality of life and we think sleep may be a driver of this. Once we have information about sleep, quality of life and daily symptoms we should be better placed to understand what type of sleep interventions people may need.

I am also working with colleagues at the University of Aberdeen on a trial called MAmMOTH, or the “Maintaining musculoskeletal health study". This trial is exciting because we are using cognitive behavioural therapy to try and prevent the development of chronic widespread pain (CWP) in those who are most at risk. This trial, as far as we know, will be the first to actively try and prevent the development of CWP. Finally, I am also involved in a big physical activity trial at Keele University called iPOPP, or “Increasing Physical activity in Older People with chronic Pain". iPOPP is designed to promote walking in older adults by using pedometers, activity diaries and motivational messages. This study is really important because we know that walking is beneficial to all adults, but that it is particularly important in those who have chronic musculoskeletal pain.

What's next for you after the end of Cloudy data collection?

Next for me is helping to address the challenge of analysing all of the data we have been given by Cloudy participants over the past year. We estimate that it will take around a year for us to really get our teeth into the data and I think this time will be really exciting for all of the Cloudy team members. I'm particularly looking forward to working with colleagues from various disciplines including maths and computer sciences, as well as other epidemiologists and medical statisticians to work out how best to use the data. I hope that by the time that we've analysed the Cloudy data that I will have not only helped to answer a really important question, but learned an awful lot along the way too to help me in my other projects!