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Medical school seeking ideas that think outside the doc’s office

Tuesday, February 19, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

The Dell Medical School at the University of Texas is looking for local organizations with ideas on how to improve the health of Austin-area residents away from the doctor’s office.

In partnership with the Houston-based Episcopal Health Foundation, the medical school will spend two years growing and gathering data from a handful of selected projects aimed at nonmedical determinants of health, which can include negative behaviors such as smoking, transportation challenges that limit one’s access to medical facilities, or poor food options.

The partnership known as Factor Health is being funded by $2.6 million from Episcopal Health, with the goal of developing programs that health care payers such as Central Health and the local Community Care Collaborative will see as worthy of continued funding because of improvements in community health.

Factor Health is accepting letters of interest including basics of the proposed health care intervention until Feb. 28. It is expected three proposals will be selected for full funding to cover development, deployment and data collection, with some others likely to receive help with designing the idea to attract other financial partners.

Mini Kahlon, Dell vice dean, said the partnership is a new approach to community health motivated by research that shows up to 90 percent of a person’s health is determined by nonmedical factors.

One idea discussed by organizers would be offering free tax preparation assistance to low-income individuals because the income from a tax refund could be used for food or other expenses that can have an impact on a person’s health.

“No idea is too novel or small, because we’ve stated the focus is on getting the best ideas and if you’re doing work in housing or food and never considered yourself a health care organization, this program is here to get your ideas focused,” Kahlon said.

“This is a fabulous opportunity to try out new things, find the best practices using data we collect and find the payers in our core partners like Central Health who will be willing to pay to continue them.”

Kahlon said the program should be thought of less as a competition and instead as a health services research project to identify new ways to impact health outside of a hospital setting.

“The goal is to prove not only that something is effective and produces a measured result, but that it can be delivered at a price point that is intensely beneficial so other partners in the community will sign on,” she said. “We’re trying to find these ideas and get them positioned for success as quickly as possible.”

Factor Health is the second program the medical school and Episcopal Health Foundation have partnered on, with the other looking for ways to reduce the incidence of Austin’s chronically homeless population entering local emergency rooms and the criminal justice system. That $6 million effort is being funded by the foundation, the city of Austin and Travis County.

Elena Marks, president and CEO of Episcopal Health Foundation, said health interventions funded by Factor Health are intended to produce results that can push health care payment systems to favor nonmedical alternatives that tend to be less expensive while producing favorable health outcomes.

“There are challenges to moving more in the direction of (health) outcomes versus paying for services, and you need databases with research that ties interventions to good outcomes,” Marks said.

“I’d be curious to know if there are programs to decrease loneliness and social isolation, or looking at the ability to exercise and the safety of sidewalks and walking paths. As long as it’s an idea where we can measure the impact clinically, we’re open to it.”

Photo courtesy of Dell Medical School.

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