March 24, 2023

Empowering more health-conscious kids

Three young people of diverse backgrounds looking at a laptop computer

Too often, discussions about a child’s health care have left out the child.

Dr. Olufunmilola Abraham, an associate professor in the UW School of Pharmacy, recalled that, during her own childhood and teen years, medical providers would mainly talk with her parents about her health and any medication needs. She feels like this exclusion is a missed learning opportunity.

“When I became a pharmacist, that’s something I kept noticing, how even if we have a medication for a child, a lot of that information is still just provided to the parent,” she said. “Even as the child gets older, we just miraculously expect them to transition to being able to manage their health and manage their medicines.”

Abraham now is pursing research that empowers children’s involvement in their health care and teaches healthy lifestyle habits. Starting that engagement and education in a positive way at a young age can normalize and ingrain behaviors that last into adulthood.

One avenue of her work has been developing game-based health education for youth, including a new project called OutSMA℞T Cancer. This computer game focuses on cancer-related topics and scenarios to help teens learn more about cancer prevention, screening, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment, as well as the role of family support and understanding genetics.

Cancer is the second leading cause of death for adults, and the fourth leading cause of death for adolescents. Research shows that half of all cancer diagnoses among adolescents are tied to five main lifestyle factors: tobacco use, alcohol consumption, eating habits, lack of exercise, and unprotected sunlight exposure.

Multiple studies have shown there is a significant knowledge gap among youth about their perceived cancer risks and susceptibility. OutSMA℞T Cancer is designed to address this gap in an engaging way. The game features realistic scenarios and a narrative style that lets players choose their path and go at their own pace—strategies to ensure knowledge retention.

The game’s styling is based on extensive surveys and focus groups Abraham and her team have conducted with teens around Wisconsin. She also partners with a national youth advisory board for perspective on a wide range of health topics.

“It just always blows my mind how they open up, how they share the things they’ve been seeing in schools, what they’re hearing from their peers,” Abraham said of those youth engagement efforts. “So for me, it always reaffirms that it’s just how we structure that interaction and prioritize them being at the center of our communication.”

Abraham’s team has published several papers about their research so far and will continue to fine tune OutSMA℞T Cancer.

“One of the things we’re hoping to do this year is to get parents and teen feedback on the prototype we’ve developed,” she said. “What aspects do they like? How can we make it better?”

Abraham’s lab also developed MedSMA℞T Families, a computer game designed to educate youth about safe medication use and the risks of misusing prescription drugs in light of the nationwide issue of opioid addiction.

Abraham advised parents to engage their children at a young age in talking about and normalizing healthy habits, such as nutritional meal prep, how and why medications work, and the benefits of being active. Children naturally are curious and see parents as a trusted source of information.

“The biggest thing is to ask questions, listen to them, involve them, and kind of move how they want to move and meet them where they’re at,” Abraham said. “So, it’s keeping that door of communication open.”