January 18, 2022
Director's Voice Blog
Looking Forward: NIH Behavioral and Social Sciences Research in 2022.
by Acting OBSSR Director Christine Hunter, Ph.D., ABPP
I am excited to write my first blog as the Acting Director for the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research. We will miss Dr. Bill Riley’s leadership but the strong foundation he laid and the fantastic people that remain in the office and at NIH, will help ensure that his parting vision that “the next generation of behavioral and social science researchers will advance the field in ways I cannot even imagine” comes to fruition. I am pleased to have the opportunity to play a part in achieving this vision and keeping the research momentum going at the NIH. The new year is a good time to reflect on where we are going so I will use my first blog to briefly reflect on the past year but mostly focus on some of what we hope to achieve in 2022.
Behavioral and Social Sciences Research Spotlights
The COVID-19 pandemic has strained healthcare systems and healthcare workers. In recent publications, researchers supported by the NHLBI, American Heart Association, and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation assessed the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the sleep patterns of health care workers (HCW) in New York City (NYC) and the downstream effects of sleep disturbances on their mental health. During the pandemic, health care workers have been under immense stress, leading many to leave their jobs, which has left many hospitals understaffed. With fewer health care workers on the job, the remaining staff must work more and longer shifts, which can worsen stress and sleep problems. Previous research has indicated the poor sleep may also trigger symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Education’s protective effect against midlife mental health challenges may be decreasing for Americans
Historically, Americans with more education tend to have more favorable health outcomes compared to Americans with less education. Although the education gradient still exists, recent data trends indicate that U.S. middle-aged adults, regardless of education, are reporting lower mental and physical health compared to the same-aged peers several decades ago. This begs the question: Is this education-health differential in cohorts also true in other countries during the same time period? A study sponsored by the NIA aimed to address this question.
Physician-patient communication is one of the most significant aspects of the health care process. An integral part of care is the achievement of “shared meaning” or “mutual understanding” between the physician and patient to encourage positive outcomes with diseases that require consistent regimens such as Type II diabetes. Precision medicine initiatives strive to develop tailored treatment plans for patients based on factors such as genetic makeup and lifestyle. Implementing precision medicine plans require communication between physician and patient to ensure positive outcomes. This NLM, NIDDK, and NSF funded study sought to understand physicians use of simple language versus their adaptation of written language to match the health literacy (HL) of patients and whether physicians’ tendency to use either strategy is associated with patient understanding.
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Recently Published Funding Announcements
The NIH has been an instrumental leader in shaping and supporting behavioral and social sciences research (BSSR) to improve the nation’s health. Integrated with advances in other scientific disciplines, BSSR has made substantial contributions to the prevention or treatment of numerous physical health and mental health conditions.
In collaboration with subject matter experts from Institutes, Centers, and Offices across NIH, OBSSR has summarized some of the important scientific advances that demonstrate the valuable contribution of BSSR across various health conditions and behaviors. These summaries are provided as fact sheets (PowerPoint slides forthcoming) that highlight a significant public health problem and the corresponding BSSR-informed approaches used to address the problem. Various audiences such as academic researchers, public health organizations, and other health federal agencies, may find these materials useful to demonstrate to their stakeholders the importance of BSSR to the health of the United States population.
These new BSSR accomplishment resources are available on the OBSSR website: Improving Sleep; Managing Chronic Pain; Preventing and Treating Diabetes; Preventing Intimate Partner Violence, Reducing Teen Pregnancy; Reducing Tobacco Use; Treating Depression; Treating Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder; Treating Phobias; and Treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Additional BSSR accomplishments will be added to the website in 2022.