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Denice Koo brings innovation and technology to health education

Koo was an early researcher using novel methodology to investigate women’s understanding of plant-based diet guidelines
By: Bonte Minnema
December 02, 2021

Denice Koo manages a large digital health team, supporting thousands of patients.

Recently I was able to speak to Denice Koo about her experience in the world of dietary science since completing her master of health science (MHSc) in nutrition communication at the School of Nutrition (NUT) at the Faculty of Community Services (FCS). Her master’s research project (MRP) helped to dispel common misconceptions and highlight the health benefits of plant-based diets over ten years ago. In her own words:

Tell me about your career. Did your master's play a role in where you are now?

I'm currently the director of patient education at SeamlessMD, external link. At SeamlessMD I lead the patient education and quality assurance teams who design interactive and accessible online programs that guide patients throughout their healthcare journeys in real-time. Patients get real-time self-care reminders and education right when they need to use it. It’s almost a little bit like having a nurse in your pocket. The programs also allow clinical teams to remote monitor patients and can alert them to intervene if a patient is trending in the wrong direction. 

I’ve always loved designing educational resources and programs and the MHSc program really equipped me with the expertise to do so. Through the program I learned about health literacy, online accessibility and health behaviour change theories. I also learned how to set program targets and measure efficacy. This foundation is what guides my work every day. 

The program is a great match for the digital patient education field, and a few of my staff are graduates of the MHSc program as well. 

Tell me what your MRP is about. What attracted you to this subject matter? What did you measure?

My MRP was titled, “An examination of knowledge, beliefs and perceptions about the plant-based diet among women attending breast cancer risk assessment clinics.” I worked with patients at Sunnybrook’s Odette Cancer Centre to get a sense of their understanding and interest in the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) and American Institute for Cancer Research’s (AICR) plant-based diet cancer risk reduction guidelines. I used a combination of surveys and a novel approach to collect my data. With my novel approach, I provided the women with food categories and had them draw on the plate what ratios they thought a plant-based diet would look like. Using Adobe Photoshop, I analyzed the percentage area covered by each of the food categories and ended up with individual and aggregate diet data to work with. I found that the term “plant-based diet” was often misunderstood as a vegan diet, which was not its original intention, and that more clarity was needed to communicate the guidelines clearly to the general population.  

How has your work shifted given the COVID-19 pandemic?

It’s been an exciting time working in a health tech start-up during the pandemic. Within a short period of time, we went from a nice-to-have to a must-have in healthcare. I think the pandemic really sheds light on the value of empowering patients in self-care through scalable digital health solutions and patients themselves are also actively seeking online options that allow them to stay safe at home. It’s been a busy time, but I’m excited for the opportunity to step up and help so many patients through our programs. 

What do you see as the future, for yourself, and of your MRP? What impact do you hope to have in your field?

My MRP was over a decade ago and now the plate model and the plant-based diet are quite widely accepted throughout North America, which is amazing. 

Since I now manage a large team of people working in digital health, my hope is to inspire and coach others on how to design the best interactive online programs. I want to empower a new generation of educators who will create programs that will make hundreds of thousands of patients feel empowered and cared for, whatever their abilities are. On the flip side, I also hope our programs will help support our hardworking clinical colleagues, so they can continue to provide great care in a more scalable and sustainable way. That’s the dream! 

What has been one of the highlights of your MRP experience?

Presenting my MRP at the World Cancer Research Fund, external link and American Institute for Cancer Research, external link conference in Washington, D.C was the highlight of my MRP experience. It was amazing to be able to share my research with the very people who created these guidelines. 

What is an unforeseen challenge you experienced doing your MRP and what did you learn from it?

I had a close family member get sick and pass away from cancer while I was working on the MRP. I took on the role of a hands-on caregiver to a loved one battling cancer alongside the role of a researcher and graduate student in studying cancer risk reduction. 

I would say that that difficult experience has blessed me with a depth of empathy and understanding of the healthcare journey that continues to enrich my design and evaluation work every single day.

What would you say to someone considering graduate work, and doing that work at FCS?

I would highly recommend it. It has changed my life for the better, and I use the knowledge I gained in graduate school every single day at work. 

Graduate-level work can be all-consuming. What is something you enjoyed doing outside of your graduate work, for school/life balance?

While I was in graduate school, I was also a food blogger. My friends and I visited restaurants, fairs and events throughout the city and tried so many delicious things. It was a lot of fun and I met a lot of really interesting people through that experience. 

Is there anyone you'd like to thank for their support on your academic and/or career journey? Perhaps a professor, friend, or colleague?

Professor Judy Paisley was our program director at the time and was my MRP supervisor. She saw my interest early on, believed in my potential in educational design, and encouraged me to forge my own path and dive head-first into innovation. To this day, over a decade later, she continues to be an inspiration and mentor to me. Thank you, Judy!  

Graduate Research Series

This past summer graduates and students at the Faculty of Community Services (FCS) were invited to tell us about their research projects and graduate studies experience. This is part of a series of introductory profiles about alumni and graduate students featuring their research and their advice for prospective graduate students. It is our hope you are as inspired by their research efforts and success as we are.  If you would like to submit a story idea for consideration please contact Bonte Minnema at