SMU working with transportation nonprofit Feonix Mobility Rising, other universities to improve health disparities in Dallas and Detroit
Janille Smith-Colin, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at SMU (Southern Methodist University) is part of a team that has just received a $6 million award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) ComPASS program to improve health disparities in Dallas and Detroit.
Led by non-profit Feonix - Mobility Rising, Smith-Colin and colleagues from Texas A&M Transportation Institute, University of Michigan and Michigan State University are investigating whether improved transportation in both cities leads to better health outcomes for people with chronic medical conditions and women with high-risk pregnancies.
NIH ComPASS, which stands for Common Fund Community Partnerships to Advance Science for Society, is financing the first-of-its-kind community-led research program to study ways to address the underlying structural factors within communities that affect health, such as access to safe spaces, healthy food, employment opportunities, transportation, and quality health care.
ComPASS projects study social determinants of health – the social, physical, and economic conditions where people are born, grow, live, work, age, and play – that contribute to health inequities.
The NIH award will allow Feonix to provide individuals with a so-called “mobility wallet,” allowing them to get to their doctor’s appointment, get a prescription filled or do whatever else is necessary to stay healthy. This wallet will have a fixed amount of money in it that individuals can use to travel in a way that’s convenient for them, whether that is by Uber, public transportation or some other form of transportation.
“I’m pretty excited that NIH has funded this interdisciplinary team – inviting transportation scholars, urban planners and social workers – to think about an issue that is fundamentally often looked at just from the public health side,” Smith-Colin said. “The reason that health disparities have existed for so long is quite complex and needs an equally complex way of attacking the problem.”
Nonprofit Feonix anticipates being able to start providing rides in Dallas and Detroit by late spring or early summer. “One of the important distinctions about this program is that the individual is in control of the transportation,” said Valerie Lefler, Executive Director of Feonix Mobility Rising. “Traditionally, Medicaid, Medicare and others arrange for transportation through a broker. Historically, that has not been super effective, especially in underserved communities where the transportation providers don't have a robust network.
“What we’re hoping to show through this program is that by providing patient focused transportation resource models, individuals will have a better quality of life and stay healthier as a result,” Lefler said.
Smith-Colin who is in SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering, specializes in advancing sustainability and resilience goals through transportation infrastructure systems research, education and analysis.
She and the rest of the team will be supporting the people who use Feonix’s services and with their permission, measuring different health and transportation outcomes.
For instance, they’ll be looking into things like whether the project participants are going to the emergency room less often and/or are making it to their follow-up appointments more often. Additionally, impacts on time spent traveling, number of rides taken per week, distance travelled, and costs of transportation will also be investigated.
Smith-Colin will also be developing a framework for measuring what’s known as “social return on investment” to see if they can quantify costs and benefits of investing transportation assistance hub resources to reduce transportation barriers to health. Her research group specializes in systems modeling, transportation planning and analysis, and sustainability.
Such findings will build on previous research from Smith-Colin and others demonstrating that a lack of transportation creates barriers to services such as medical care, prescription services, grocery stores, education and other social determinants of health.
The Dallas/Detroit program is one of 25 awards NIH ComPASS gave to community organizations to improve health disparities across the country, along with one award to a coordination center.
The project is funded by NIH Common Fund award number OT2OD035839. More information is available on the ComPASS program website: https://commonfund.nih.gov/compass.
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