Bringing science to the waiting room: Soundproof booth gives patients opportunity to advance research

By Francie Williamson, Communications Coordinator, Department of Psychiatry

If you’re planning a visit to University of Iowa Health Care’s clinic on Scott Boulevard in Iowa City, you can take part in a research study without talking to a soul.

You will have to talk, however.

Jake Michaelson, PhD, associate professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, and Tanner Koomar, a student in the interdisciplinary graduate program in genetics, recently set up a soundproof, sand-colored booth in the lobby of the Scott Boulevard clinic. Anyone over the age of 18 whose primary language is English is invited enter the booth, take a seat, shut the door and follow the instructions on an iPad inside.

After inputting some demographic information, and answering questions about their current mood, participants will be asked to complete a series of spoken language tasks, including reading back a series of numbers and, in 30 seconds, naming as many words as they can that start with a certain letter.

After this, they will be asked if they went to grade school in Iowa and would be willing to share their Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) scores. 

Participants can be anonymous, or they can provide their name and email address and be entered in a drawing for a gift card. The full test takes about 10 minutes and can be taken multiple times.

Speeding up the process

So, what’s this all for? And why the booth?

Michaelson says it is part of a study into the genetic underpinnings of language, and builds on research that Bruce Tomblin, professor emeritus in the UI Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, conducted over several years on specific language impairment.

“And that is a really labor-intensive kind of thing to do. You have to have a proctor who sits down with a person for an hour or a couple of hours and uses paper and pencil to run through a lot of different language tests,” Michaelson says.

There are 400 people who have taken part in the research, which Michaelson says is a lot, “considering that it’s the biggest study of its kind ever done on language.”

“But really, to get solid genetic findings to any condition or any trait, you have to have a lot of people. And we’re talking thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands are really what you need to do a lot of these studies. So if we’re going to make any kind of dent in this, we’re going to have to speed up the process of characterizing people for language, and we have to do it in an automated way. We have to do it in a way that doesn’t require paper and pencil, we have to do it in a way that produces very rich data that we can come back to again and again to reanalyze,” Michaelson says.

A couple of years ago, Michaelson and Koomar started developing an internet-based tool that would run participants through language tasks and record their audio via webcam.

“The reason development has taken so long is that we wanted to make sure this was done right, so that our research participants have the best experience possible while making their contribution to science,” Michaelson says.

Koomar says as they prepare to roll the web-based tool out to the masses, they got the idea to test it in a controlled environment.

Enter, the booth.

Going off campus

Michaelson says the idea to place the booth in the Scott Boulevard clinic, and not the main hospital, came down to space.

“In all of our psych clinics here, space is at such a premium,” he says. “There’s really just no space to do research or to pull people aside and to have a conversation with them.”

Tanner Koomar checks the tablet inside the soundproof research booth in the lobby of the University of Iowa Health Care clinic on Scott Boulevard in Iowa City.

There also wasn’t an ideal soundproof environment available, Michaelson says, adding he had thought about a standalone booth, but had no idea where to put it.

It was his colleague Hanna Stevens, MD, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry, that suggested the Scott Boulevard clinic, due to its expansive lobby.

“So, we looked into it and talked with the people in the administration here who make the decisions on what’s allowed in there and we got all the permissions,” Michaelson says. “I’m just amazed at how everything came together.

Michaelson says the booth is small, not intrusive, and provides exactly the type of setting needed to conduct research in a clinical environment, which is what UI Hospitals and Clinics is all about.

“It’s not just any hospital, it’s a very research-oriented hospital,” Michaelson says, “so we want to make sure that patients have the opportunity to participate in that research at their leisure. The research opportunity comes to them.”​

‘A slow trickle’

Michaelson says the staff out at Staff Boulevard have been very enthusiastic about assisting with the research.

So far, Koomar says about four to six people a day are coming into the booth and completing the tasks.

“It’s sort of a slow trickle, but that’s enough that we can see if weird problems happen and for us to catch it,” Koomar says.

Michaelson says four to six people a day doesn’t sound like a lot, “but you have that over a course of a year and that’s a lot of people.”

Michaelson adds that the Scott Boulevard clinic is open seven days a week, from 7 am to 9 pm every day except Sunday, when it is open until 7 pm. Along with urgent care services, there are many patients who regularly visit for specialty services, and those patients could theoretically take the test multiple times.

Koomar says the short survey about mood at the beginning of the test is important because it could explain how verbose the participant is being, and if someone takes the test multiple times, it could also explain a variance in results. The question about ITBS records also can give researchers the opportunity to compare grammar and vocabulary scores from earlier in participant’s life to now, to add validation.

The test inside the booth is a pared down version of the full test that will be available on the web, Koomar says, which will take about half an hour.

Looking to the future

If all goes well, Michaelson says they could potentially install more booths in other UI Health Care clinics, like Iowa River Landing and North Dodge Street.

“Once you sit in it, you’re like, this is a nice experience to be able to do research in this environment,” Michaelson says. “We think this could be a really useful way for us going forward to make people aware of the research and the opportunity for them to be able to participate in it too.”

Michaelson also thinks there’s a chance that other researchers could set up their studies in booths like these.

“If this were done right, it would be cool to imagine in the not too distant future, it’s just a given that these booths are lined up in all of the clinics, and there’s a tablet in them, and different researchers can have different applications on it,” Michaelson says. “And you sit down in the booth and pick one of these five different studies that’s going on right now.”

“Maybe this is a proof of principle that something like that could happen.”

Friday, February 28, 2020