Dr. Koehly's research focuses on developing and applying social network methods to the study of complex social systems, such as families and communities. Her current research examines the influence of social context on coping responses to communication of hereditary risk and evaluates the effects of social context on improving health outcomes. To that end, she seeks to develop effective family-based interventions to encourage communication among family network members about genetic risk information, as well as to mobilize related social support processes that increase appropriate screening regimens and health-promoting behaviors.
In order to better understand the impact of the interpersonal environment on behaviors, Dr. Koehly also develops statistical methods to examine the perspectives of all members within a family system, thereby considering the social context in which genetically at-risk individuals live. This approach is in contrast to previous research in this field that has maintained a more limited and biased focus on individuals' perspectives as if they were independent of the broader social network.
Recently, Dr. Koehly has focused on the dissemination of and adaptation to genetic risk information for a number of hereditary cancer syndromes, such as Lynch syndrome (inherited colon cancer) and hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. Communication within families about cancer risk, particularly in the context of these rare cancer syndromes, fosters an appreciation of shared disease risk that can lead to cooperative, family-based approaches for reducing distress and improving both screening and health-promoting behaviors. Indeed, Dr. Koehly's work has shown that optimal dissemination of genetic risk communication occurs primarily among at-risk individuals and their first-degree relatives and spouses, although optimistic individuals tend to enlist more biological family and social kin in their discussions of cancer risk. Her work has also shown that an interconnected system of emotional support among its members is associated with less anxiety within the family. Additionally, families with interpersonal connections in which cancer screening is encouraged are more likely to engage in appropriate screening behaviors. Dr. Koehly and her team continue to explore ways to maximize the reach of cancer communication beyond first-degree relatives.
Dr. Koehly is also leading a study known as Project RAMA (Risk Assessment in Mexican Americans) to develop culturally sensitive family-centered interventions to motivate health behaviors such as cancer screening and changes in lifestyle habits. The goal is to lower risk for common diseases that "run in families." This project targets multi-generational Mexican American households by providing members with family history feedback about common health conditions in an effort to engage family members in adaptive cooperative coping. Dr. Koehly is exploring whether an intervention that provides risk feedback to multiple household members can stimulate discussion regarding family risk of diseases such as diabetes, and whether these discussions encourage associated risk-reducing behaviors among family members (e.g., blood glucose testing or increased physical activity).
Additionally, Dr. Koehly is in the early stages of research to examine the system of family caregiving in families affected by Alzheimer's disease (AD). Caregiving is an interpersonal process that involves communication about a shared problem and the development of cooperative approaches among family members to address the problem. Research aimed at understanding this process to date has focused on the perspective of individual caregivers. Dr. Koehly will examine whether patterns of caregiving differ based on factors such as the number of relatives affected by AD and their age at diagnosis.
Among other questions, Dr. Koehly is interested in addressing whether the individual's perceived risk of developing AD is associated with their level of involvement in providing care to other affected family members. Finally, Dr. Koehly will investigate whether the structure of the caregiving family member's support network is helpful in reducing the strain of this role.
In the future, Dr. Koehly intends to obtain information based on family history regarding the social context of families with varying levels of disease risk, to explore if patterns of communication, support, and encouragement are common across diseases. Additionally, she is interested in examining whether these patterns vary across families from different ethnic and racial backgrounds, in order to guide the development of network-oriented interventions that are culturally sensitive.
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Last Reviewed: August 26, 2013