FIU researcher develops mobile health app to help underserved

FIU researcher develops mobile health app to help underserved
FIU researcher develops mobile health app to help underserved
Gira J. Ravelo and student Vicky Vasquez visit the Rural Neighborhoods: Everglades Village in South Florida.

Helping vulnerable populations gain access to local health services is traditionally a task that requires training community health workers to link hard-to-reach and vulnerable communities to local resources. Unfortunately, experts find, this framework only creates dependence on these workers.

To meet the goals of linking communities to services, as well as promote empowerment, a researcher from the Center for Research on US Latino, HIV/AIDS, & Drug Abuse (CRUSADA) at FIU’s Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work designed a mobile health application to catalog available services in the Homestead area.

“I wanted to be able to reach the greatest number of people in the most effective way,” said Gira J. Ravelo, research assistant professor and director of the project. “We were already aware that virtually everyone in this community had access to smart phones, and that regardless of their level of education, they are savvy on their phones. I knew that a health app would be an effective tool to bridge needs and available services.”

FIU SALVA was launched officially in April 2019. SALVA, which stands for Substance Abuse, Legal Aid, Violence, and HIV/AIDS, is a bilingual (English and Spanish) mobile application that lists dozens of services in the Homestead area, where the app prototype is currently being piloted. Those services include mental health, education, employment assistance, substance abuse, HIV services, legal aid, and much more.

“When you look online, not all the available services come up — like resources for substance abuse or homelessness are available at a local church, but because that is not the church’s primary function, it doesn’t show up on an internet search,” Ravelo said. “An agency may focus on the migrant community but also collect furniture to give out to those in need.

“Community leaders are a tremendous source of information, and more importantly, they have the trust of the community.” she added. “With the help of our newly trained community health workers we have gathered resources and placed them all in the palm of the community’s hands.”

One surprising outcome: people living outside of the Homestead area are using the app, too. Social workers and local law enforcement are hearing about the application and using it to help direct people to services. Trained community health workers have reached out to Ravelo and expressed the community’s satisfaction with the SALVA app.

Ravelo is now looking to expand the reach of the SALVA app beyond Homestead to other communities in South Florida.

“The truth is that people really love it,” Ravelo said. “They ask me all the time when the app will be available in Hialeah or Doral, Liberty City or Little Haiti. They ask me to just add a little more here or there. It’s a process but we are working on getting funding to make it all happen.”

As the application expands, there are plans to make it trilingual, adding Haitian Creole to better serve the Haitian community.

The application is free and available to iOS and Android users.

The project was supported by the Center for Research on US Latino HIV/AIDS and Drug Abuse (CRUSADA/C-SALUD) Award Number P20MD002288 from the National Institute on Minority Health & Health Disparities (NIMHD), National Institute of Health (NIH).

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