Professor Rachael Gooberman-Hill

Professor Rachael Gooberman-Hill is Professor of Health and Anthropology at the University of Bristol, and Director of the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute for Health Research. She leads some of the research within the SPHERE project, which was shortlisted for the NCCPE Engage Awards 2016 in the Health & Wellbeing category.

Ethos of engagement

For Professor Gooberman-Hill, her background in social anthropology has the advantage of having a firm connection with public engagement. She describes social anthropology as grounded in the ethos of engagement, because anthropologists work alongside members of the public. “Anthropology often involves long-term fieldwork in which partnership and co-working is the norm”, she said. “You’re always trying to understand what people are doing and why people do what they do.”

Applied health research

Professor Gooberman-Hill specialises in researching ways of improving the lives of people who live with long-term pain. Her work has included research into osteoarthritis and knee replacement operations. Osteoarthritis alone affects more than 8 million people in the UK and 1 in 5 people have long-term pain after a knee replacement (She leads a research programme – STAR – to improve this).

Her first job after completing a PhD was in health. In it she worked with older people with long-term health conditions and involved talking to patients in their homes across the UK. She recalls: “People were incredibly resilient, and managing in very challenging circumstances. It was a genuine privilege to be allowed into their homes and hear their experiences.” She believes we still have a way to go when it comes to offering medication or means to manage long-term pain.

SPHERE project

It’s clear, too, that Professor Gooberman-Hill has a genuine and deep-rooted passion for engaging with members of the public. No surprise then, that this approach is central to the SPHERE project.

SPHERE (Sensor Platform for Healthcare in a Residential Environment) is an engineering research project which is based on sensors providing information about health-related behaviours. In the future, it might help detect signs of early dementia for example. Said Rachael: “SPHERE technology has the potential to let people stay in their own homes, if that’s what they desire, by helping people to see any changes in their condition.”

Around 100 researchers are involved in this truly ground-breaking project, with the Universities of Southampton and Reading, and Knowle West Media Centre being other main partners.

Project participants

The other project partners are the people whose lives might be altered by such technology. The engagement of the public is threaded right through the project and has led to real change in its approach.

Information about what people do at home is collected using smart technologies – sensors and wearables. Privacy is a particularly important issue, and the views of those taking part have been valuable.

“It became clear that people have very different views about the levels of privacy they felt was acceptable to them. There wasn’t a one-size-fits-all position, which led us to look at how we might customise a future system to accommodate people’s individual views”, said Professor Gooberman-Hill.

The team also looked at ways of easing the burden of cost on individuals, through looking at minimising the use of electricity, so the project could be more socially inclusive.

Team spirit

A real highlight for Rachael and the SPHERE researchers is the great spirit of teamwork. She adds: “When a whole set of different skills come together, the whole of the sum of these parts is so much greater, and it makes me really happy working alongside such a wonderful team.

“Our ageing population presents us with enormous challenges. When people age they tend to have to cope with one or several health conditions. I want to live well in older age, and I believe others should be able to do so too.”