AUSTIN, Texas — Researchers from leading health institutions in Mexico and The University of Texas at Austin gathered this week for a first-of-its-kind summit in Austin to develop concrete and actionable research projects to improve health.
More than 50 researchers participated in the collaborative event, known as “Puentes: Advancing Population Health Research,” and proposals for potential research covered a variety of topics including maternal health, migrant health, chronic disease, social determinants of health, mental health, environmental health factors and health education.
“This gathering is unprecedented both in scope and its focus on health,” said Ricardo Ainslie, director of the LLILAS Mexico Center at UT Austin. “We made good progress and are eager to begin moving these ideas forward to impact the health of people on both sides of the border.”
Population health is broadly defined as improving health for individuals and groups of people, or populations, with a special focus on people suffering from health inequities.
For example, on the issue of migrant health, summit participants focused on improving the well-being of families returning to Mexico after living in the U.S. Planned research will address psychosocial adjustment of children, family dynamics and adapting to change, the specific health needs of migrating families, effects of moving on the educational performance of children, and social integration within the new environment.
“We don’t know how many people are going back [to Mexico] from the U.S., and what happens to their health when they go back,” said Maria Elena Rivera Heredia, a professor of psychology and coordinator of the Nicolaita Center for Migrant Studies at the University of Michoacana at San Nicolás de Hidalgo. “We currently lack the methods we need to measure this information, but once we have them, these tools will be invaluable to the health of this population.”
Researchers also addressed maternal health, and teen pregnancy more specifically. Concrete projects kicked off at the event involve using existing data from both countries to help identify common factors that may point to future prevention strategies, and identifying ways to better understand social determinants of teen pregnancy.
“We are learning how the health systems and practice of medicine are very different between our two countries,” said Deborah Parra-Medina, Ph.D., inaugural director of UT Austin’s Latino Research Initiative. “Part of the challenge ahead of us is to design an intervention that is adaptable and scalable so it works in both countries.”
Among the Mexican health institutions involved were Instituto Nacional de Salud Pública, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, El Colegio de Sonora, Universidad de Guadalajara and Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo. UT Austin researchers represented the schools/colleges of liberal arts, education, engineering, nursing, public health, social work, pharmacy, architecture, public affairs, communication and medicine.
“The research projects that came out of our work here focus on overcoming both medical and social barriers to health on both sides of the Texas-Mexico border, and lessons learned in one country will provide keys to advancing health in the other,” said William Tierney, M.D., chair of the department of population health at Dell Medical School.
Next steps to move these research projects forward include expanding the proposed projects by involving more experts from participants’ respective institutions, developing a more formalized approach to advance collaborative research, identifying and pursuing potential funding opportunities, and exploring the use of virtual spaces for better information sharing and collaboration.
Special guests who made presentations during the two-day summit included:
- Tonatiuh Barrientos, M.D., Ph.D., director of reproductive health, Instituto Nacional de Salud Pública;
- Eliseo J. Pérez-Stable, M.D., director of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities at the U.S. National Institutes of Health;
- Gregory L. Fenves, Ph.D., president of UT Austin;
- Daniel Jaffe, vice president for research at UT Austin;
- David Lakey, M.D., vice chancellor for health affairs and chief medical officer for The University of Texas System; and
- Clay Johnston, M.D., Ph.D., dean of Dell Medical School.
The event was co-sponsored by UT Austin’s Office of the Vice President of Research; LLILAS Benson Mexico Center and the Latino Research Initiative, both at UT’s College of Liberal Arts; and The University of Texas System. It was hosted by Dell Medical School, and discussions were facilitated by the medical school’s Design Institute for Health, created in collaboration with UT’s College of Fine Arts.