Faculty member receives grant to examine use of telemedicine among South Florida’s vulnerable communities during COVID-19

This is the first study investigating differences in how telemedicine is utilized among uninsured, low-income minority groups living in South Florida.

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Dr. Sahar Ajabshir, an assistant professor in the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine, received a $50,000 grant from the Center for Research on U.S. Latino HIV/AIDS and Drug Abuse (CRUSADA) Supplemental Pilot Studies Program for a proposed pilot study titled “Utilization of telemedicine during COVID-19 global pandemic to address health disparities among vulnerable communities living in South Florida.”

The study is a partnership between FIU and a community-based primary-care clinic that provides free health care services to low-income, uninsured members of the South Florida community.

The community clinic partner was forced to essentially close in March, maintaining only extremely limited access to telemedicine services. Its closure, along with the closure of many other primary clinics in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, may have perpetuated health care disparities in the community by severely limiting access to medical care, including medication refills, chronic disease management, acute care visits, and cancer screenings.

“Considering the higher prevalence of underlying medical conditions among minority and socioeconomically disadvantaged communities, and the loss of employer-based insurance among the millions who have lost their jobs, it is imperative to find a solution to maintain and expand access to health care for these communities in South Florida as we expect the second peak of COVID-19 pandemic during the upcoming fall and winter,” says Ajabshir.

One such solution is telemedicine, a live real-time connection between a patient and a health care provider. Telemedicine has long been utilized as a convenient tool to provide healthcare, but its use increased greatly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Telemedicine has the potential to broaden health care access, but Ajabshir says that while several studies suggest telemedicine visits have similar outcomes compared to in-person services, not much is known about the racial/ethnic and sociodemographic differences in utilization of telemedicine among vulnerable populations in South Florida.

“To our knowledge,” according to Ajabshir, “this is the first study investigating the racial/ethnic and sociodemographic differences in utilization of telemedicine among uninsured low-income minority groups living in South Florida.” The study will also compare pre- and post- COVID-19 pandemic patients` data in order to assess differences in utilization of telemedicine versus in-person visits. She hopes the findings will serve as the basis for future telemedicine interventions among vulnerable underserved racial/ethnic communities living in South Florida.

This project is in line with Ajabshir’s research, which focuses on diagnosis and treatment of chronic diseases, including diabetes and obesity within different communities, based on their ethnic heritage and cultural practices. During her graduate studies at FIU, she worked with Dr. Fatma Huffman and her research team, which concentrated on studying diabetes and cardiovascular disease among minority groups.

“That opportunity enhanced my understanding of interpersonal differences and the need for development of tailored and personalized therapies for optimal health outcomes,” she says.

Ajabshir will rely on a strong FIU team for the study. Dr. Sarah Stumbar, assistant dean for clinical education and assistant professor of humanities, health and society, serves as a co-investigator on the project, and two of Ajabshir’s mentors through the FIU Faculty Mentor Program, Dr. Carolyn D. Runowicz and Dr. Gagani Athauda, provided invaluable support during the application process. Additionally, the study will provide an opportunity for FIU medical students to be involved in a timely research project while practicing social distancing.

“This research project will help to train the next generation of health care professionals and researchers in health disparities and increase the awareness about health disparities among underserved Latino and other vulnerable communities.”


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