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$1.5 million grant could be a game-changer in reducing health disparities nationwide

Study is a collaboration by researchers in the School of Public Health and School of Law at Texas A&M
Happy Hispanic grandparents eating with granddaughter at home patio

An innovative, multidisciplinary approach by Texas A&M University researchers to better support and empower vulnerable communities along the Gulf of Mexico has been awarded a $1.5 million grant from the National Academy of Sciences.

Lead researchers for the 22-month grant are Cason Schmit, JD, assistant professor of health policy and management in the Texas A&M School of Public Health, and William Sage, MD, JD, professor with joint appointments at Texas A&M School of Law, School of Medicine, and the Health Science Center (Texas A&M Health). Sage also is faculty director of the recently established Texas A&M Institute for Healthcare Access. This project is a joint venture among several units and is the institute’s first fully funded partnership. Others on the team are Christine Crudo Blackburn, Benika Dixon, Hye-Chung Kum and Garett Sansom from the School of Public Health and the institute’s executive director, Keegan Warren.

“The federal government can use measures of social determinants of health—factors such as people’s access to safe housing, nutritious food and quality health care—to shape health policies,” Schmit said. “Unfortunately, however, existing methods for gathering the data can overlook those who need help most by prioritizing some considerations over others, for example. Our project will improve the government’s ability to account for these factors, as well as health disparities and health outcomes associated with the environment and climate.”

The team will focus on the National Syndromic Surveillance Program (NSSP). Health care providers and researchers at more than 6,500 facilities nationwide submit more than 8 million electronic health messages to NSSP every day. Public health officials use this information as an early warning system to detect and monitor the health impacts of disease outbreaks, natural disasters, the opioid crisis and other events.

“We intend to improve the NSSP through policy improvements that allow it to more accurately reflect social determinants of health, health disparities and health,” Schmit said.

First, the team will work with federal partners to improve NSSP by enhancing existing data streams, linking data and incorporating new data sources ethically and equitably. Next, they will explore community needs and concerns using community-based participatory research in South Texas colonias and Houston’s Manchester neighborhood to develop policies to improve such data collection. Finally, they will use their findings to develop NSSP policy opportunities and strategies to support vulnerable communities as part of the Data Modernization Initiative, an effort from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to use data to create one public health community.

“We believe our project has enormous potential to have national impact,” Schmit said. “By taking our findings directly to the relevant decision-makers at the national stage, we can help those in vulnerable communities be heard and their health disparities addressed.”

Media contact: Dee Dee Grays, grays@tamu.edu, 979.436.0611

Ann Kellett

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