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New UNC center evaluates, researches equity of virtual health through $3.7M grant

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Saif Khairat, a UNC associate professor in the School of Nursing, stands in front of Carrington Hall in Chapel Hill, N.C. on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. Dr. Khairat is leading the new Center for Virtual Care Value and Equity, which will increase research on the use of telehealth services.

As researchers continue to study outcomes of COVID-19, a new center at UNC is researching the equity and sustainability of virtual health care services.

UNC launched a project to establish a center focused on virtual health care on Aug. 1 — the Center for Virtual Care Value and Equity (ViVE). The University received a $3.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences to fund a five-year plan to establish the center. 

ViVE is led by Saif Khairat, an associate professor in the UNC School of Nursing and associate director of the Carolina Health Informatics Program. 

Khairat said making telehealth more accessible for underserved populations, especially those in rural North Carolina, is important to the center. He also emphasized improving telehealth's financial sustainability.

“We learned a lot from the pandemic, and one of the lessons that we learned was, although telehealth can bridge disparities, it can also cause inequities,” Khairat said. “Certain populations, if not involved in the design and the implementation of virtual care programs, can be left behind.”

Khairat said that different communities find challenges when it comes to accessing health care. He noted many rural residents face long hospital commutes, but they can utilize telehealth as an alternative way to meet with healthcare providers. 

But while many groups benefit from virtual health services, issues like lack of internet access and language barriers can steer patients away from telehealth.

David McSwain, a co-investigator on the project and professor at the UNC School of Medicine, said virtual health care services have been evolving for decades but quickly expanded during the pandemic.

McSwain said there is a wide variety of telehealth services, and one benefit is creating more service options for patients with chronic and complex diseases who require “sustained interaction with the health care system.”

One goal of ViVE is to develop a way to measure these types of success that virtual health care can provide, Khairat said. Another goal is to provide workforce development through workshops, conferences and webinars for North Carolinians and people across the country.

ViVE’s investigation will look at all types of virtual care, including behavioral health. Khairat said mental health services typically fall under the behavioral health umbrella.

In light of UNC’s recent campus shooting, Khairat said he would like the center to look inside the University, as well as outside of it. He added that this initiative might include collaborating with CAPS in order to help research and evaluate their services.

“The student body is a very diverse student body,” Khairat said, “And I think we should also be thinking about making sure the telehealth services we offer to our students, like we do in clinics and hospitals, are equitable and meet the needs of our students.”

Senior Erica Williamson is one student who has benefitted from telehealth services. She said she enjoys how the flexibility of telehealth allows her to meet with a therapist — a form of care she otherwise might not have time for as a student if it required her to attend sessions in person. 

The virtual health care option has also allowed her to maintain a connection with her hometown psychiatrist in Wilmington. 

“I'm just glad that it allows me to keep this relationship with her without having to go through the whole process of trying to find another psychiatrist who works well with me and knows my history,” she said.

Khairat said the center will work with many schools and departments across campus, including UNC's North Carolina Translational and Clinical Sciences Institute, UNC Health and the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“Because UNC is so uniquely positioned with so many resources and so much expertise — in population health, in rural health care, in innovation — we have the opportunity through this center to really chart the course of not only virtual care going forward, but health care in general,” McSwain said.

Khairat encourages anyone in the UNC community interested in the center to get involved in its data collection and analysis research.

“It's an open-door policy at the center,” he said. “We welcome everyone, all thoughts, and I think collectively we can make a bigger impact.”

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