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Undergrad Trio Employs Tech to Bring Health Info to Migrants

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Posted September 21, 2015

Two years ago, University of Virginia faculty members Laura Barnes and Rupa Valdez were collaborating on a National Institutes of Health-funded project designed to help Latinas in a rural farming community in Florida: an interactive, multimedia health education program delivered by virtual humans on a tablet device. The professors enlisted three undergraduates to help with background research and data analysis.

This year, those same undergraduates are among the winners of the Voto Latino Innovators Challenge, a $500,000 tech competition that asks Latino millenials to “think of a way tech can be used to make life better for Latinos,” and then provides winners with the funds, training and partners to make their idea a reality.

Fourth-year students Alexis Chaet, Andrew Mitchell and Bijan Morshedi submitted one of seven winning concepts addressing a variety of needs in Latino communities around the country. Their entry, “Designing Culturally-Competent Health IT for the U.S. Latino Migrant Farmworker Population,” was inspired by the work they did with Barnes and Valdez.

Their vision? A multimedia platform designed for low-literacy populations that delivers medical information and education to migrant workers. The platform will consist of a personalized video library of health topics loaded onto a tablet and installed in five migrant work camps in rural Virginia next year.

Chaet, a human biology major in the College of Arts & Sciences, and Morshedi, a chemistry major, collaborate on content and implementation. They interviewed farm workers directly and found that beyond basic disease treatment and prevention, they need help learning things like how to make an appointment, what questions to ask the doctor during an appointment and how to fill a prescription. They are in the process of identifying videos with the necessary content, literacy level and length to include in the app. Each tablet will be connected to the local community clinic, and a community health worker will be hired to provide support at each camp.

Mitchell, a computer science major in the Engineering School, handles the technical side of things. For the past year, he has been working on an Android mobile health information tool for Spanish speakers that uses an “embodied conversational agent” to walk the user through a set of animations and questions. This is the basis for the virtual human that will ultimately deliver the information on the app.

One of the perks of being a Voto Latino Innovators Challenge winner is a trip to San Jose, California to visit Google headquarters. Mitchell attended lectures on marketing tech products, entrepreneurship and Google tools, and met other finalists and learned about their projects.

Chaet and the team collaborated with several parties in addition to their project advisers, Barnes, an assistant professor of systems and information engineering, and Valdez, an assistant professor of public health sciences.

“After developing our skillset through [the NIH-funded project in Florida], we wanted to work with the Latino community closer to home,” Chaet said. “We reached out to Blue Ridge Medical Center and developed a partnership with Vanessa Hale, who directs work with the farm worker camps in Nelson County through the Latino Health Outreach Program. We applied for a research grant through the Center for Global Health and the Center for Undergraduate Excellence, and received funding to conduct an initial needs assessment for farm worker camps in the region.”

Chaet is optimistic about the long-range future of the platform. “In the upcoming year, we hope to have developed the multimedia platform, installed the tablets in the camps, and be in the process of conducting a preliminary evaluation,” she said. “We hope to adjust the platform to better meet the needs and concerns expressed by the community, further tailoring both the content and the technology.

“Someday, this project might serve as a model for bridging gaps in health information access and communication barriers within limited-English-proficiency populations living in isolated communities.”

Mitchell added, “I feel extremely privileged to be involved in this project as its purpose not only directly helps the migrant Latino community, it also illustrates the merging of health information with technology.”

Source: University of Virginia

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