dr. gary bennett

digital health wonk and [coffee] geek

I've long been interested in Steve Jobs' approach to design. True, I'm a bit of an Apple fan-person, but my appreciation for the Apple Way runs deeper than that. I constantly struggle with my approach to developing digital health technologies. Is it theoretically-grounded, using evidence-based approaches, technically sound, adopting optimal user experience practices, gathering the right amount of patient feedback and so on.

Jobs' approach was different. He knew what he liked and he thought we should (vs would) too. And he was right.

I knew that Jobs' liked pretty things, but I hadn't tied it to his love of the humanities. This Brian Lehrer interview of Walter Isaacson is a must listen. They cover a range of topics but most interesting is Isaacson's argument that Jobs' love of the humanities pushed him to create mashups of great technology and humanistic design principles.

It's a good reminder for all of us who do this work.

One of the key challenges in a new-ish area like digital health is not being too innovative when pitching new ideas. This piece from Derek Thompson does a great job of explaining the challenge:

Knowledge doesn’t just turn us into critical thinkers. It maybe turns us into over-critical thinkers.

That’s absolutely been my experience —  in NIH study section meetings, product pitches, and brainstorming sessions.

Thompson’s solution? Portion control.

Most people really don’t like new ideas that sound entirely new, particularly the experts that often have to approve them. The trick is learning to frame new ideas as old ideas—to make your creativity seem, well, not quite so creative.

It’s that time of year again. I’m a faculty member in the clinical psychology program at Duke. During application season, I get lots of questions about whether I’m taking a graduate student, as well as who (and what) I’m looking for.

Back when I applied to graduate programs in clinical psychology, I had an entire kitchen table full of brochures, letters, and file folders for each university. We didn’t apply electronically, so I had an assembly line with stacks of printed personal statements, letters of recommendation in sealed envelopes, and special sections for schools — like Duke at the time — that required extra stuff.

Some things change, some things stay the same. Then, as now, I remember wondering whether individual faculty would be taking students in my application year. I really appreciated those faculty who were transparent about their plans, so I aim to do the same. Therefore:

tl;dr: Yes, we are [probably] taking a student next year.

Now, a few pieces of totally presumptuous advice:

As most of you know, clinical psychology programs that adopt the scientist-practitioner model operate along a continuum from clinical-heavy to research-heavy emphasis. Duke’s clinical program resides at the research-heavy end of the continuum. Duke offers absolutely splendid clinical training. We have outstanding clinical supervisors and a diverse set of training settings. Our alums become very strong clinicians. But we remain a research-heavy graduate program. If you are primarily interested in becoming a clinician or are not sure about your research interests, then I would strongly consider whether a research-heavy program is right for you. My opinion: they’re probably not.

Next, when it comes to evaluating potential research mentors, fit should be your primary consideration. I cannot emphasize this enough. For better or worse, many graduate programs still use an apprentice training model. This means that you will spend at least the next four years working very closely with a research mentor to develop the skills necessary to pursue an independent research career.

Here is a universal truth about graduate study:

If the fit with your mentor stinks, your graduate experience will too. -Me

Look, we know that there are lots of good reasons to pursue graduate studies at Duke. We are one of the best research institutions in the country. We have the country’s most beautiful campus. We have the best men’s and women’s basketball teams in the nation. Our faculty actually play basketball. We have will soon have the best football team in the country. We have the best food and food trucks in the country. We have the best dance festival in the country. We have the prettiest gardens and forests in the country. We have the best weather in the country. We have the best chapel in the country. We have the most spirited undergrads in the country. Did I mention that I am an alumnus? Duke is an amazing place, but if the fit with your research mentor stinks, very little of this will matter.

In that spirit, here’s what I’m looking for. First, know that my team designs, tests, and disseminates interventions for obesity treatment in high risk populations. This means a few things:

  • We’re looking for those who want to learn how to develop interventions. We’re less of a fit if you’re interested in the causes or psychological consequences of obesity.
  • We work in real-world settings with high risk populations; for obesity this means socioeconomically disadvantaged and racial/ethnic minority groups. We’re less in determining what works for obesity treatment in highly motivated populations. We work in busy primary care settings, often far from campus.
  • We use digital health approaches. We don’t use paper, pencils, workbooks, food models, or in-person individual or group treatments.
  • Although psychology is an individual discipline, our research program is heavily invested in population health. Thus, I’m looking for those with strong interests, training, or work experience in public/global health.
  • We work on the public health challenge of adult obesity. We don’t work in eating disorders (although Duke has great faculty in this space). We’re getting more interested in work with kids, but will probably start with families.
  • Finally, when evaluating a graduate application, I’m looking for those who have demonstrated an ability to think big, articulate focused research questions, work independently, execute in the field, meet deadlines, work well with colleagues, and communicate effectively – all while knowing how to have fun.

Good luck and Go Duke!


Chinese upstart smartphone maker, Xiamoi, had a Jobsian "one last thing" moment yesterday, releasing their first wearable. Shockingly, it's a fitness band.

Another day, another fitness band. — Me

So what's different about this one? The price.

It's $13.

Sure, it does lots of wonderful things. It lasts 30 days on a charge, it can unlock your phone sans password, it's waterproof, it's a "sleep" tracker, and apparently it also measures physical activity.

It's also $13. Otherwise known as commodity-ville.

Tracker makers know that the days of big margins for wearables with low cost innards are quickly coming to an end. Everybody's seeking differentiation. Have you seen the new Tory Burch's new line for Fitbit? No, really.

Xiaomi is launching the first salvo in what I predict will be a broader charge of low-cost wearables. Commoditization is great for digital health. For the market to thrive, we need to move beyond niche markets — quantified selves, fitness buffs, slightly-less-offensive-than-gifting-a-gym-membership — and get broad-based population penetration. I predict that we'll see these things [on discount] lining the shelves at your local drugstore. Just like paper towels.

Commoditization has another benefit for digital health. It will redirect the market's focus where it should be: on the software. After all, the challenge isn't the [data] collecting, it's the changing. Tracker makers have done an excellent job in developing cool tools for gathering data, but they've been much less creative in designing software that reliably improves people's health. And it's the software that offers tracker makers the greatest opportunity for differentiation.

The days of buying $13 wearables on double coupon day are coming. And that's a good thing, as it just might force the market to begin leveraging strong science to create software that turns trackers into the health promotion tools that we've been waiting for.

I had a wonderful time today speaking at the national WIC association meeting. It’s rare to see such an amazing group of uniformly passionate and committed people. Hope to visit with y’all again soon.


I decided to accept the call, serve the field and my country by joining an NIH study section. Since many of you academic readers are preparing June grants, I thought that I’d list my top grantwriting tips. There are lots of good places to get good, comprehensive information on grantspersonship. What I’ll mention are some quick thoughts that emerge after reading what feels like hundreds of applications this round.

1. Imagine me. Not me and you. Just me. Sitting here, reading your grant. It’s late. It’s early. My kids just went to sleep. They’re about to wake up. I’m on my couch. I’m on the porch. It’s been a long day. It’s going to be a long day. I’m tired. I just woke up. I’m having a glass of wine. I’m about to make my kid’s lunch. I just fell asleep. Again.

Get the picture?

Most of us can’t fit our reviews into the normal workday, but we fit the reviews in. In weird places, at strange times, amidst our lives.

So make it easy! Kill the jargon. It doesn’t make the grant sound better. It makes reading difficult. Use whitespace. Lots of it. Be declarative. Use active voice. Use pictures. Be persuasive. Shorten your sentences. Make them painfully short. See what I mean? This works wonders at 11:27pm.

2. Abbreviations are absolutely horrible (AH). Why are they AH? Because they mean very little (VL) to me, so half-way through your grant, I remember VL about the terms. So now it’s 6:30 am, my kids are almost awake, I’m feeling AH, and you’re requiring me to flip back to the front of this 150 page PDF to find the first mention of this term. I know that you have VL space, but using non-standard (to me, not you) abbreviations is AH for the reviewer.

3. Be creative. Initially, I was most surprised by the huge amount of variability in the structure of individual proposals. I think people feel very bound to the structure that they learned when first writing grants. But you have license to make your grant stand out [positively]. No, you don’t need to use arcane heading structures (e.g., A.1., A.1.a., A.1.a.ii — really I’ve seen these out to four decimals). Use good figures, color, and reasonable images to get my attention!

4. Bold judiciously. I like a little hyperbole (stop laughing, everyone I’ve ever met). I get that you want me to notice your point. But you can stop bolding at the period (or even before if you like). The whole paragraph doesn’t need to be bold, because it becomes kind of like crying wolf. Oh, and pick something: bold, underline, or maybe even bold underline. But don’t do all of them, simultaneously.

5. Make your first sentence sing. There’s a reason that people get excited by the first lines of books. They matter. So make yours matter. I know that rates are rising, that disparities are prevalent, that gaps exist. Give me the gist, capture my attention, tell me why this matters, why your approach is golden, make me put this glass of wine down — all in a [short] initial sentence.

Last one [for now] — tell me why I should care. Really, I care about you, the field, and science more generally. I know that we have a horrible funding situation right now and trust that I’m in your corner. But, the sheer number of grants (which are about to increase) means that I can’t help but be … judicious. For this to work, I will need to advocate for you. I have to argue your case. I’ll need to stare down my fellow colleagues and argue why your idea matters. Inspire me to do that and I will. Promise.


I’ll be speaking at the upcoming National WIC Association meeting in Pittsburgh, PA on Tuesday May 20, 3:30-4:30pm. I’ll be performing an acoustic version of my favorite standard:

When Obesity Becomes the Norm, What Do We Do?

I’m sure you know WIC, but for the other 2 of you:

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) is a public health nutrition program under the USDA providing nutrition education, nutritious foods, breastfeeding support, and healthcare referrals for income-eligible women who are pregnant or post-partum, infants, and children up to age 5.

Hope to see you there.

We’re at The Society of Behavioral Medicine meeting in Philly (my homeland) today talking about social media. I just mentioned microblogging and it’s ease. See how easy?