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Crystal clear

Pharmacy doctoral graduate predicts bright future for digital health


By Marcia Porter

Dr. Meshari Alwashmi doesn’t need a crystal ball to predict that the future of digital health looks bright.

Like all of us, this new PhD graduate from Memorial’s School of Pharmacy is witnessing first-hand how the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the way we connect with our health-care providers.

“It’s really encouraging to see that a lot of people are much more accepting of technology now,” said Dr. Alwashmi.

“A lot of people were skeptical at first, but they are much more open to using and adapting to it. I see us moving in the future to a more hybrid model where we have a mix of virtual and face-to-face appointments.”

Fascinated by technology

As a child growing up in Saudi Arabia, Dr. Alwashmi remembers his fascination with the latest technologies.

“My father worked for customs and had to approve new technologies before releasing them to the market, so I had the chance to access many technologies, and I was always fascinated, whether it was cellphones, laptops or video game consoles.”

These days his fascination is with technology that helps people breathe easier.

He’s the chief scientific officer for BreatheSuite, a St. John’s-based technology company on a mission to make a difference for people who suffer from chronic health conditions such as asthma.

“I have an opportunity to do work that could impact people’s lives on a global scale.” — Dr. Meshari Alwashmi

BreatheSuite has developed an inhaler add-on device that connects to a smartphone and tracks information to help patients take their medications properly. The company has a number of trials in the works, some local and some international.

“I have an opportunity to do work that could impact people’s lives on a global scale,” said Dr. Alwashmi, who has an impressive educational background across the health sciences, including nursing, medicine and pharmacy.

Drawn to research

When he first arrived in Newfoundland and Labrador back in 2007, Dr. Alwashmi wasn’t thinking about becoming a researcher.

He began his academic career in nursing, completing the fast-track option of the bachelor of nursing program at the Western Regional School of Nursing in Corner Brook.

“When I did my research course I felt very drawn to research and innovation, because of the potential to save millions of lives,” he said.

The more he explored the health professions as a student, the greater his interest in research, and the more curious he became about the use of technology to manage and improve people’s health.

Two months after graduating with his bachelor of nursing degree, Dr. Alwashmi enrolled in the Faculty of Medicine’s master’s program in clinical epidemiology, researching the use of a medical device to diagnose patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“I wanted to help develop technology that would fit seamlessly into the lives of patients to help improve their lives.” — Dr. Meshari Alwashmi

Incidentally, it was a conversation with his master’s course supervisor, Dr. John Hawboldt, an associate professor in the School of Pharmacy at Memorial, that convinced him to complete a doctoral degree in pharmacy – an educational path that would give him a well-rounded background and depth of knowledge in the health sciences.

For his PhD research, he focused on understanding the process of a digital health intervention, working with health-care professionals and patients to gain more insight into how doctors, nurses and pharmacists work together using technology to care for and diagnose patients with chronic lung diseases.

“A lot of people think that technology can take away that human touch and I asked that specific question, [to health care professionals],” said Dr.  Alwashmi. “It was interesting to see that it’s actually the opposite, that they feel more connected to their patients and use technology to do the repetitive tasks, like vital signs and data collection.

“I wanted to help develop technology that would fit seamlessly into the lives of patients to help improve their lives,” he continued. “Essentially, we cannot improve the practice of any field without doing research and innovation.”

Academic career full of highlights

During completion of his PhD program, Dr. Alwashmi had more than one exciting moment, including taking part in a workshop at Stanford, developing a mixed methods research framework that was later cited by the World Health Organization and speaking at national and international events.

These days, with his PhD research behind him, Dr. Alwashmi focuses primarily on his work with BreatheSuite, which was founded by a Memorial engineering graduate, and has several Memorial graduates on staff.

About his decision to study at Memorial over a decade ago, he says: “It’s one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life for sure.”

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