Two heads (or more) are better than one

Four interdisciplinary and cross-institutional groups receive the TMC Health Policy Institute’s inaugural collaborative grants to improve health care in Texas

Two heads (or more) are better than one

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The Texas Medical Center announced Monday the four recipients of the inaugural Grant Program in Collaborative Health Policy Research.

Among the 21 applicants who submitted their research proposals, four were selected to receive a portion of the $750,000 grant funding. Each research initiative, which includes collaboration between two or more TMC member institutions, was reviewed and selected by a team of out-of-state health policy experts.

“The major goals of our Institute are to generate innovative practical approaches to improvement in health policy, and to support collaboration across the 56 member institutions. This program serves both of those goals,” said Arthur Garson, M.D., director of the TMC Health Policy Institute.

“It’s gratifying to see that, while there are a lot of institutions that make sure they attract the most number of patients and can look like they may be competitive at the research level, the collaboration is just terrific,” he said.

In keeping with the theme of collaboration, each of the four research initiatives takes an interdisciplinary and cross-institutional approach, pooling together various subject matter experts to examine specific issues that affect the health of Texans.

“We are very excited and we’re really happy that we were selected,” said principal investigator Rigoberto Delgado, Ph.D., assistant professor of management, policy and community health at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Public Health. Delgado’s research initiative — which includes collaboration from the University of Houston, MD Anderson Cancer Center, The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and Texas Children’s Hospital — focuses on increasing health care access via mobile health clinics for at-risk populations by using epidemiological data, management approaches and industrial engineering to develop an optimal region of operation for those services.

“What we’re looking at now is combining the efforts of different organizations that have been working somewhat independently, […] but now we have the elements in place to say, ‘Let’s come together. Let’s see what resources we can share,’ not only from the clinical point of view, but also from engineering, economics, epidemiological and community health points of view, and come up with a logical model that will help us bring these efforts together for the benefit of the community and maximize our limited resources,” Delgado added.

Vivian Ho, Ph.D., director of Center for Health and Biosciences at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, was also one of the four recipients to receive the inaugural grant.

“I’m so excited that the TMC Health Policy Institute is giving incentives to encourage researchers to work together across institutions,” Ho said. “This is actually forging a collaboration that wouldn’t have existed otherwise and I think that’s how we’re going to [generate] the best policy when we pull in expertise from different institutions in the TMC, which are all strong in particular fields.”

Ho will team up with experts from UT-SPH, Baylor College of Medicine and the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center to identify the motivation and track the implications of freestanding emergency departments in Texas. Especially with the surge of new emergency centers, Ho and her colleagues plan to conduct a closer examination of this trend to decide whether they are located in areas where there are unmet needs for emergency services or in areas where there’s more potential for earning a higher profit.

“Over the last five years, there’s been tremendous growth of freestanding emergency departments here in Texas, and anyone who lives here in Houston has seen them pop up somewhere along the streets that they drive on,” Ho said. “They represent potential convenience; however, they may have extremely high costs.”

While Delgado and Ho’s research projects examine health care services, fellow grant recipients Robert Phillips, M.D., Ph.D, chief medical officer of Houston Methodist Hospital, and Kenneth Smith, director of the Center to Eliminate Health Disparities at UTMB, will lead their respective research initiatives to study the patients.

Phillips and his team of collaborators from UTMB, Baylor and CHI St. Luke’s Health-Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center received the planning grant to analyze preventable readmissions in TMC institutions by developing strategies to reduce unplanned readmissions and using predictive analytics for existing models to identify risk of readmission. Ultimately, Phillips said, the goal of this research project is to improve the TMC as a whole.

“People always told me coming here that the TMC is the largest medical center in the world, so I want to use this grant to be the best medical center in the world,” Phillips said. “In putting everyone into the mix together, I think we’re going to come up with something really phenomenal.”

Smith, who will work with the University of Houston, Texas Children’s and Baylor, said he and his team plan on studying ways to reduce health risk and increase care access for child refugees, primarily children from Central America between 13 and 18 years of age who are escaping violence in their countries.

“I was very excited about [receiving the award],” Smith said. “This is actually a very good project that brings people from multiple perspectives and disciplines together, and that’s going to be great,” Smith said.

Garson said the TMC Health Policy Institute will host a seminar early next year for grant recipients to present their research ideas to a panel of senior experts from the TMC who will provide insights and recommendations. The panelists will serve as “on-the-spot advisers” to each of the four principal investigators to “kick these grants off in an even better direction than maybe when they started.”

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