Carlos Pérez-Aldana, a student at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth Houston), is using a novel approach to analyze social media data to help young cancer survivors.
“My research is focused on studying these online communities to learn more about how cancer survivors communicate and support each other: the language that they use, what kind of support they are providing, and what topics they are talking about,” said Pérez-Aldana, a PhD student at UTHealth Houston School of Biomedical Informatics. “One of the main aims of my project is to understand the dynamics of these communities to ultimately find ways to improve social support exchange.”
Pérez-Aldana is particularly interested in what kind of social support young cancer survivors need through diagnosis, treatment, and remission.
It’s a topic that has affected him personally. His wife, Kristi, was diagnosed with cancer as a young adult while they were dating and after they had both gone to graduate school together in Europe. This showed him how cancer impacts every aspect of life, especially professional and personal goals, and how essential social support is.
Pérez-Aldana’s current work is a first step in designing and creating interventions to help young people who have gone through cancer get the support they need. Cancer carries a heavy emotional weight. It can affect personal relationships, and cause mental health problems, anxiety, and worry that it could recur.
“I knew cancer in a young adult was very disruptive for life, and that was a personal motivation to work with this population, but when I started researching deeper I realized that there are very few studies targeting this population and informatics has a great potential to contribute,” he said.
The informatics approach Pérez-Aldana is using can be applied to other groups of people, like people living with diabetes or other chronic health conditions. “These approaches can also be applied to caretakers to help support them as well,” he said.
“Given the COVID-19 situation, and how many parts of our lives have transitioned to online, it’s a great time to be researching online communities,” he said. “Our bonds on social media are growing stronger, but it’s not always a good thing. These approaches can also be applied to study how disinformation spreads within communities as well.”
Advancing health IT technologies and literacy in Colombia
Prior to joining the School of Biomedical Informatics, Pérez-Aldana helped take early steps to advance the adoption of electronic health records (EHRs) among Bogotá’s public hospitals, aiming to connect more than 20 health institutions to serve millions of Colombian patients, and bringing specialists to those in need.
He has facilitated advancements in biomedical informatics, telemedicine, and public health in his native country.
Pérez-Aldana’s connection to UTHealth Houston started in 2014 as a faculty member of El Bosque University in Bogotá. He was researching programs to develop a master’s degree in biomedical informatics for the Colombian university. That program was approved by the nation’s minister of education in 2018 — making it the first biomedical informatics program in Colombia.
After earning a Master of Science in telemedicine and bioengineering from the Polytechnic University of Madrid in Spain, Pérez-Aldana returned to Colombia to work with the local health authority on a massive project to implement electronic health record systems for the 22 large public hospitals which serve the 11 million people living in Bogotá’s metro area.
“One of the main challenges was the limited funding to purchase an electronic health record system,” he said. “A lot of the work happened behind the scenes, evaluating what kind of modules were needed most. We were working on an interoperability model for the city’s EHRs, so the system would connect all of the hospitals so that they could talk to each other and share data. It’s not easy, but it’s ideal.”
The work also included implementing telemedicine capability, aiming to greatly expand access to specialists.
“We were trying to figure out how to connect rural hospitals to the city through telemedicine so they could share their specialists, but it wasn’t just the rural areas. Some hospitals in the city itself did not have important specialists on staff,” Pérez-Aldana said. “Radiology was one example. Some facilities did not have 24-hour access to radiology for emergencies, and we were trying to solve that through telemedicine.”
While working on these projects, Pérez-Aldana realized more work was needed to make it successful and self-sustaining.
“I realized people were lacking skills to implement health IT in general. It wasn’t just the doctors, but the IT people in the hospitals implementing these technologies needed additional training,” he said. “That led me to go back to El Bosque University in 2012, not only because it has a prestigious school of medicine, but because I was able to convince the dean of the school of medicine that we needed to develop programs in biomedical and health informatics.”
It started as an elective course, one of several courses that Pérez-Aldana still teaches remotely while in the United States.
“In 2014, there was an idea to develop a master’s degree in biomedical informatics,” he said. “Given that I was promoting these topics in the school of medicine, and that El Bosque had an agreement with UTHealth, I volunteered myself to come to the School of Biomedical Informatics to learn how to structure our curriculum.”
In 2015, Pérez-Aldana organized an international symposium with UTHealth Houston SBMI guests, and in 2016, he came back to Texas again — this time as a student.
“It became a necessity for me to learn more about the technologies and methods I was teaching, and to be able to better design research in the field of informatics,” he said. “After discussing it with my academic peers and with UTHealth Houston faculty, I decided it would be best for me to get my PhD so I could keep promoting the development of this field in Colombia.”
“I didn’t have to think too hard about coming back to UTHealth Houston. I knew the faculty, the school, and the research. I was already sold,” he said. “I knew it was a unique place of innovation.”
The next chapter
Pérez-Aldana said he is excited to be embarking on the most important and exciting role in his life — being a father to his infant son, Thomas.
“My first occupation is as a father with a baby at home,” he said. “Being a father is a lot of work, but it’s amazing. It will change your life. It’s not just routine, but your perspective on life. It changes everything.”
Professionally, Pérez-Aldana said he is open to opportunities as he graduates. He would love to continue teaching in the U.S. and in Colombia, where there are a growing number of opportunities as the informatics field takes root.
“The field is more developed in the States, but digital technology adoption is rapidly developing in Colombia,” he said. “The context is very different, and resources are limited. We can exchange successful and innovative ways of doing things, and I’m sure we can exchange a lot of information and provide learning opportunities for both students in the United States and in Colombia.”