Pieter Rohrbach, PhD student eHealth

Many PhD projects at the LUMC are executed in collaboration with other parties, as Pieter Rohrbach, PhD student at GGZ Rivierduinen, knows all too well: “I am conducting my research at GGZ Rivierduinen Eetstoornissen Ursula. My PhD research is focused on how eHealth can improve and reduce the problems of people struggling with eating disorders.”

Despite conducting his research for GGZ Rivierduinen, Pieter is appointed at the LUMC Graduate School (LINK): “I’m enrolled in studies at the LUMC Graduate School, because the Graduate School is able to provide me with the necessary education and training for a PhD trajectory and GGZ is not. At the LUMC, I follow various lectures and the mandatory courses necessary to complete a PhD. I also attend eHealth meetings organised at the LUMC. There is a lot of research being done on eHealth at the LUMC. It is really interesting for eHealth students to come together and share ideas.”

eHealth as an aid for eating disorders

The research Pieter is working on, focusses on ‘stepped care’: “Each step represents a threshold. And by crossing over several small thresholds, one is able to climb his/her own ‘Everest’.” On average, it takes up to four years for someone to seek treatment after discovering his or her eating disorder. This is a long period of time, which is expected to be shortened with stepped care.

 “A first step someone can undertake is using the platform ‘Proud to be me’, an online community for people struggling with an eating disorder, where users can talk to others struggling (or who have struggled) with an eating disorder and others involved.” Another ‘easy’ step someone can take is using the eHealth platform Pieter is focussing his research on, namely: Featback. “Featback is free and anonymous. It is an internet intervention that stimulates people to deal with their eating disorder.”

Every week, users of Featback are asked four questions that they have to answer. Based on their answers, Featback generates an automatic response in which the platform gives insight into the severity of users’ current situation and how they can act upon it: “This way, we aim to create awareness among our users and stimulate them to seek help from friends and parents.”

Does Featback work?

In the end, that is what it all comes down to: does the platform work? “Previous research has shown that the overall satisfaction of the platform was not quite up to par, but the platform did contribute to reducing eating irregularities. The overall contentment increased when users had the option to engage in conversation with a psychologist, but oddly enough this had no extra effect on the diminishment of eating problems. Now, we want to involve people who have suffered from eating disorders in the past and if their engagement with users of the platform can help reduce eating problems even further. In addition, we are also trying to optimize automatically generated messages sent by the platform.

All in all, Pieter has his work cut out for him in the upcoming years. The medical and ethical issues have been judged critically by an examination committee and with a population of 350 people, who will be ‘followed’ during 14 months in their usage of Featback, Pieter and his team hope to set a next step in reducing eating irregularities.