Name: Hernâni Zão Oliveira
Occupation: Founder & CEO / Professor
Hernâni Zão Oliveira holds a double degree in Biology and Communication Sciences from the Faculty of Sciences and the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, and a Master’s degree in Oncology from the Biomedical Sciences Institute. In addition, he enrolled in the Digital Media UT Austin | Portugal Doctoral Program in 2015 (at that time, he was co-coordinating the first Portuguese Creative Laboratory for Health Literacy). He earned his Ph.D. degree in 2020.
Hernâni is also the founder of BRIGHT DIGITAL, a start-up focused on creating and developing products and services to aid communication between patients and the health units. His projects in breast cancer and Paediatric Oncology were awarded the Diogo Vasconcelos Social Entrepreneurship Award, the Santander Bank RedEmprendia Innovation Prize, and the 2017 Astellas Oncology C3 Award. In 2018, Oliveira was selected to join the innovation fellows program promoted by the European consortium EIT Health.
You did your PhD in Digital Media for HealthCare in Portugal and the US, namely at the University of Texas at Austin in the frame of the UT Austin Portugal Program. How do you think having studied within two different settings strengthened your knowledge?
The decision to apply for the Doctoral Program in Digital Media was born as a natural response to my path as a student at the University of Porto. My higher education starts with the Biology course and is intensified with the desire to attend a second course at the same time, a Communication Sciences Degree, both at the University of Porto. After the first course, a Master’s Degree in Oncology followed, and there was an increasingly pressing need to use what I learned in the Communication degree to increase knowledge in Health, especially for people with high-impact diseases, such as cancer. I then embraced the challenge of bringing together a group of professionals from different areas to respond to the gap felt in the panorama of Health Communication.
The first project of this multidisciplinary group was developed for the Portuguese Institute of Oncology’s Breast Clinic in Porto, where I defended my master’s thesis on the relevance of a digital communication tool that would increase autonomy and clarification for patients with breast cancer. This project, which brought together designers, oncologists and communication professionals, ended up winning first prize at the I Diogo Vasconcelos Social Entrepreneurship Award, promoted by the Porto Academic Federation. Other projects followed as a result of this recognition, allowing us to respond to other needs at the Porto IPO, namely the high anxiety and sedentary lifestyle that affect the response to treatment in children hospitalized with an oncological disease.
After this phase, there was a three-year break in my academic career as a student, because I felt the need to acquire some professional experience. However, the projects that remained in the drawer, and the (good) persistence of some professors so that I could proceed to a PhD, led me to opt for the Doctoral Program in Digital Media at the University of Porto. With excellent professors and curricular units that promote a critical sense and synergy between different areas, I found in this program the necessary bases to feel intellectually fulfilled for 4 years.
What was the most challenging part of moving to the US to do your PhD? And the greatest?
Despite having only made an exploratory visit to Austin, the contacts made were very relevant to my PhD. I remember planning the visit and having to select the institutes and professors associated with UT Austin that I would like to meet. While doing a search on the university’s website, I came across that one of the professors was the principal researcher of one of the first articles that came out about trust in the use of health communication tools and health literacy. Despite quoting this article several times, for lack of attention I had never realized that this researcher was a professor from UT Austin. And after a few weeks, I was sitting at his desk planning a joint study between Portugal and the United States.
I think this little story shows the great opportunities that a Doctoral Program linked to a leading university can have. However, I think there are also challenges that must be addressed. The investment made by Portugal in this type of projects should ensure greater use of the North American curriculum, guaranteeing double degrees for students who attend a cross-border Doctoral Program.
During your PhD studies, and in partnership with UT Austin, you helped shape the University of Porto Creative Lab for Health Literacy, of which you became the co-coordinator. What was the idea behind it? What was achieved by it?
The Creative Lab for Health Literacy is a multidisciplinary laboratory, developed within the scope of the Media Innovation Labs competence center, which started from the analysis of the national reality to demonstrate the relevance of a model that can produce concrete strategies and instruments in the field of Health Promotion, Health Communication, and Health information. The work carried out within this laboratory is intended to take a practical approach in the field of Health Literacy. Thus, the creation of a dynamic Laboratory was projected, which has three essential fields of action:
I. Observatory for Scientific Research | Collection and analysis of information from the actors of symbiosis health – media – society in the area of Information and Communication in Health;
II. Creative Lab | Development of communication products, applying knowledge from creative and technological areas to medical knowledge, and thus enhancing technological transfer from academia to society. Initial projects were defined in the areas of prevention of cardiovascular diseases, oncology, and mental health for the creation of spin-offs in disruptive areas.
III. Training Center | The laboratory was also designed to develop citizen training actions, in order to increase their self-management capacity and mastery of health information tools; This field of action is being responsible for the specific training of professional groups that are an integral part of this project (advisors, journalists, health professionals and creatives).
From 2018 to 2021, several public sessions were organized on relevant topics in the field of Communication in Health, and training actions and summer courses were developed with Austin teachers, bringing Portuguese companies together with students and health professionals in co-creation activities. The laboratory was also invited to be an expert entity to validate the National Health Literacy Program launched in 2019. And, in addition to having published several articles and having developed master’s and doctoral theses, the laboratory was recognized with the European Prize for Best Communication at the 4th European Congress on Health Literacy, the covid support grant from the Gulbenkian Foundation and the Starship Award from the EIT Health program.
Science communication is part of your daily life – why is it important in your eyes?
It’s not a few times that, when I’m among friends, I say that whoever listens and can understand the composer Bach is a happier person. As if it were a mathematical code, Bach’s real value only seems to be decoded by some. Of course this is a matter of taste and a joke I like to make for recognizing the genius of this composer. But, if you will allow me the metaphor, understanding science is to the quality of life of a person like Bach is to his joy. There are people who do not understand the scientific code, and find it more difficult to understand their surroundings, to make decisions or to maintain their quality of life. Communicating Science and Health is today, more than ever, a priority issue that deserves serious investment and a captive place in the school curriculum.
Your passion for science communication, and your belief in its power to educate society about health, led you to create the company BRIGHT – Beyond Research and Information Graphics for Health and Technology. Can you briefly explain why you made it and what does BRIGHT seek to accomplish?
During my PhD, I realized that it would be necessary to set up a company that could transfer knowledge to what I was developing in a university context. Furthermore, I realized that this company could also be useful to other organizations, helping them to communicate better and develop unique and irreverent projects. That’s why BRIGHT, a spin-off from the University of Porto, was born.
BRIGHT is a software company which develops innovative solutions that allow citizens to increase their quality of life, making people more autonomous and conscious about their health. Using entertainment tools based on gamification as the main engine of innovation, BRIGHT manages to increase the motivation and training of medical teams and patients, increasing the quality of treatments and rising health outcomes. With a focus closely linked to adherence to therapy and the comfort of its users, BRIGHT solutions allow to balance the use of medical resources and to improve medication management.
One of your big interests is around oncology, and you did your Master’s degree in it. How essential was the knowledge you obtained in oncology to conduct projects like HOPE, SMART CLINIC and MedOnTrack – initiatives all related to cancer science?
When we strive to communicate something related to an illness, we need to have enough knowledge about it to be able to explore its communication potential. In the case of cancer, we are talking not about a disease, but about a set of diseases that affect a person in a unique way. Knowing the biology of these, its epidemiology, its possible treatments or forms of mitigation, closely following the innovation advances that are emerging, or understanding hospital routines, is essential to know how to communicate and be able to actively contribute with solutions for the improvement in the quality of life of the patient and/or survivor. All this and much more was given to me by the master’s degree in Oncology. Interestingly, after starting the Doctoral Program, I returned to the Oncology Institute in Porto, but as a cancer patient. And, leaving aside the normal insecurities of the patient I was, I can say that having had cancer was a great opportunity to feel firsthand that the commitment to Health Communication is highly crucial.
We are very intrigued by your project HOPE – which won the Astellas Oncology C3 Prize, an international competition that distinguishes the best technological therapies for cancer patients. Could you tell us more about it and, in particular, what motivated the creation of this project?
The HOPE project consists of two communication tools: a video game for children and a mobile application for parents and caregivers. The video game is used as a serious game – to teach cancer topics to the child in a dynamic way – and as an exergaming tool – which allows the child to exercise and have fun at the same time. This video game was created to unite the realistic perspective of an oncological disease to the fantastic world. The realistic perspective is achieved through the illustrations used in the videogame based on photo reports of real spaces; the fantastic world is introduced with the story of a child, the main character, who fights cancer like a superhero fighting the bad guys. The main fears of hospitalized children are, in this game, transformed into their character’s superpowers. The app for parents and caregivers was later designed based on the same story as the video game, so that it can be used to clarify all the steps that children will go through. This mobile application contains adaptation strategies for a more efficient recovery, including advice from parents of survivors to more effectively overcome the most complicated moments associated with this entire difficult journey.
You are currently a professor at the University of Évora. Did you ever think you would teach daily? What motivated you to pursue the world of teaching?
I am and will always continue to be a student full of curiosity. However, I also realized that there is a huge potential to whet other people’s curiosity, showing them possible ways to build new solutions with an impact on society. It is not easy to teach students to be curious, but it is easier to create together and provoke the students’ critical sense, identifying and deconstructing real needs. This was the opportunity that the University of Évora gave me and that I am enjoying exploring.
Based on your experience at UT Austin, what piece of advice would you give to researchers and students who may be considering applying for an educational program abroad?
A sequence of thoughts that gives me energy: 1. The world is too small for us not to want to know it; 2. There are still many points to be joined and so many bridges to be built in the world of Science and Technology; 3. If we multiply this number of points by the number of bridges, we will not be able to reach the number of opportunities that the world gives us every day.