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PhD candidate Jack Banks is exploring digital solutions for epilepsy management

‘Meet Jack Banks, a PhD researcher in the Discipline of Clinical Medicine in the School of Medicine, Trinity College Dublin. Jack originally graduated with a BSc in Human Health & Disease from Trinity College Dublin in 2018. His research, which is funded by FutureNeuro and S3 Connected Health, centres around digital health solutions in patients with epilepsy. Jack has already published two first-author publications in Epilepsy & Behaviour, and he won FutureNeuro’s Researcher of the Year award in 2020. We spoke to Jack about what brought him to this research topic, what he enjoys about his PhD, his future plans, and what he does to relax when not buried in books and screens!’

Can you describe your research topic?

‘I’m driving a research project between FutureNeuro, SFI Centre for Chronic and Rare Neurological Disease, and S3 Connected Health. Using a mixed methods approach – survey, ethnographic fieldwork, semi-structured interviews and focus groups – my research seeks to understand the barriers and facilitators to digital health adoption for epilepsy self-management. Within the current system of epilepsy care, patients receive their care through periodic face to face appointments in hospital outpatient clinics. With ageing populations and increasing chronic disease prevalence worldwide, there’s a pressing need to innovate care models to alleviate pressure on healthcare systems while maintaining a high quality of care for patients. Both nationally and internationally, it’s recognised that the effective use of technology within healthcare – ‘eHealth’ - is pivotal in shifting care from in person, acute hospital settings to a more independent, empowered remote model for patients and their carers.

My work wishes to conceptualise the lived experience of people with epilepsy, their carers and clinicians. Through a behavioural science framework, I’m trying to identify where digital supports can be integrated into the ecosystem of epilepsy care to allow patients to manage their condition more independently.’

How do you see your work impacting healthcare in the future?

‘In the past 12 months, we’ve seen so many disciplines of medicine embrace digital health and remote models of care. Based on my own research findings, and from what I’ve read from others in the field, there is little appetite to return to a purely face-to-face model when the pandemic ends. Throughout society, we have embraced technology to facilitate so many aspects of our lives, yet healthcare seems stuck in the past. There are a number of digital tools available for people to use to manage aspects of their wellbeing – wearable devices, patient portals, and self-management apps to name a few. While we have this enthusiasm and while we’re in the midst of a pandemic, a necessity for digital exists. I believe it’s so important for researchers like myself to gain an understanding of how individuals are using different tools to manage their conditions away from traditional healthcare settings. This will help us in a post-CoVID world in designing a healthcare system which combines digital and face-to-face health together in the optimal way.’

Did you always want to pursue a research career?

‘Not at all! When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a primary school teacher. I love kids and I thought the shorter working hours, holidays etc. would allow a lifestyle where I could prioritise hurling.
I had a brilliant chemistry teacher for my leaving cert, Liam O’Mahoney. He always brought concepts to life and engaged us in every single class. I spoke to him regularly about college and he encouraged me to study a science course. I ended up filling my CAO with biomedical science courses and ended up in Trinity.

In the final year of my degree, I got the opportunity to conduct a research project with Prof Colin Doherty. I loved being in a hospital environment and collecting data from patients, their families and clinicians in the epilepsy clinic. When the opportunity arose to continue this body of work in the form of a PhD, I jumped at it, as I knew I’d get to work in this environment I was so happy in for three more years.’

What do you enjoy most about your studies, and would you recommend the academic life to young student and undergraduates?

‘I love the autonomy I hold over my working week. I am largely free to structure my days around designing experiments, data collection and analysis, reading papers, writing manuscripts and my thesis as I see fit. At first, I found this responsibility quite daunting but over the last couple of years, I’ve grown into it. The responsibility of managing these tasks myself has taught me skills that I’ve been able to apply to many aspects of my own life.

As my research is largely desk-based, I’ve been able to work from home year without losing significant progress on my project, for which I am extremely grateful.

I’d definitely recommend the PhD life to young students and undergrads. It’s a cliché, but every day I learn something new. Conducting research with individuals living with epilepsy and their families has allowed me to understand how privileged I am with regards to my health. I also feel very fortunate to work with such intelligent, empathetic and passionate clinicians and scientists.

There are some non-academic challenges to doing a PhD. As we’re considered students and not employees, there is no contract, job security or annual leave - and we’re paid a stipend below the living wage. I’m very fortunate to have such a great supervisor who encourages me to take time off and pursue my passions outside of the PhD. On the whole however, I think we need to start a conversation about PhDs having more workers rights.’

What are your plans for the future?

‘I plan to complete data collection for my project this spring and to submit my thesis in September. Having spent the last seven years studying for my degree and doctorate within the School of Medicine in TCD, I feel a change of scenery will be needed after finishing my PhD. I’m hoping to stay in research exploring patient experience and developing a healthcare system to suit their needs. I’d love to carry out a body of work in this area in a new city or country – I’ve no doubt this would be beneficial for my personal and professional development going forward.’

Who are your mentors?

‘My supervisor Prof Colin Doherty has been a massive support and influence over the past three years. While he is eternally busy balancing clinical and academic research responsibilities, he always makes time to check in with me regularly and offer guidance. We share a great bond and I know it will continue post-PhD.’

When you are not working on your PhD studies, where could we find you?

‘I come from a GAA family and have played hurling all my life. Old Christians are my home club in Limerick, but I now hurl with Castleknock in Dublin since 2018. I played for TCD’s hurling team for six years and it was a hugely defining part of my college experience. All of us who played together on the college team are close friends and the bond within Trinity GAA extends far beyond the pitch.

I’ve always been passionate about music and since I was a teenager, I’ve been a DJ for the past six years, and I’ve had the chance to play gigs in venues around the country. In 2019, my best pal Manus and I got to DJ at the Hazelwood stage at Electric Picnic. Once the pandemic is over, I can’t wait to get back into clubs and venues again!’