Interconnection highlights consortium’s person-centered approach to health research | Virginia Tech News

A new approach to health research will lean into the perspectives of a whole lot of people.

The Whole Health Consortium at Virginia Tech will combine the expertise of faculty, students, and community partners to explore a more well-rounded approach to person-centered well-being than traditional health research. The focus will expand beyond illnesses and symptoms to people’s behavioral, spiritual, and socioeconomic factors as well as their interconnected systems, such as families, communities, and environments.

“When we talk about ‘whole health,’ we’re talking about a change in paradigm from  ‘what’s the matter with you’ to ‘what matters to you,’” said Karen Roberto, University Distinguished Professor and executive director of the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment. “So whole health research is multidisciplinary by its very nature and includes opportunities for a wide variety of people both at Virginia Tech, the surrounding communities, and beyond.”

The institute was charged with developing this research initiative by Senior Vice President and Chief Research and Innovation Officer Dan Sui in 2021. Since then, the Virginia Tech Whole Health Consortium has grown to more than 70 members; held a variety of focus groups, meetings, workshops; and taken on mental health as the focus for this year.

“We can solve big complex problems and do extremely meaningful things when we all come together instead of working in our own little silos,” said Tina Savla, professor of human development and family science and chair of the consortium’s leadership council. “At the end of the day, it’s not how many papers we publish, it’s how many lives we are able to affect that matters and here is an opportunity to really make a difference in people’s lives directly with our research.”

Roberto and Savla shared updates related to the consortium during the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors’ meeting on Nov. 6.

What is whole health?

  • Has roots as a clinical practice of the Veteran’s Administration
  • Takes a person-centered approach with an aim to support overall health and well-being
  • Considers connections across biological, behavioral, social, environmental, and spiritual domains

“For me, the core of whole health is understanding everything that impacts a person — from their families to the environment, the community they are part of, and even the country they reside in,” Savla said. “All of those contextual pieces, along with the people surrounding them, play a significant role.

What will whole health research at Virginia Tech look like?

  • A transdisciplinary approach to investigating equitable health and well-being solutions that supports people and their communities to pursue meaningful lives
  • Focus on the interconnected aspects of health challenges and the discovery of multifaceted solutions
  • Sustained, multidisciplinary work with researchers, educators, students, practitioners, health care providers, community agencies, and industry partners
  • Ultimate goal of revolutionizing systems, research, practices, and policies that impact health and well-being

“Working outside of traditional academic boundaries in such a way is a very important component of this group,” Sui said. “It truly illustrates the spirit of convergence research and Virginia Tech’s land-grant mission and contributes to our vision as a top global university.”

What’s on the horizon for the Whole Health Consortium?

  • The group has taken on mental health as its first collective focus.
  • Seed grants will soon be awarded in two tracks, both with the long-term vision of positioning collaborative teams to compete for substantially large research funding for
    • Advancing partnerships to catalyze multidisciplinary research teams with three to five interconnected projects
    • Incubating collaborations between scholars and community partners to develop prototypes for community-engaged research or interventions
  • There are a variety of levels of involvement in the consortium ranging from simply staying updated on the groups progress to leading research projects.
  • An annual conference is scheduled for March 22. Additional information will be announced on the consortium’s website.

“We have a lot of great biomedical and health sciences work already happening on campus,” Roberto said. “What we aim to do is broaden that perspective by encouraging engagement from those who might not typically see themselves involved in health research, but that very much have a connected role.”

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