Senior man getting a health checkup

Closing the Spaces in the U.S. Healthcare Gap

By Karina Wright

One size simply can’t fit all when it comes to patient care. And it shouldn’t. Yet underrepresented populations are often left out of the healthcare equation. MITRE and Oak Ridge Associated Universities-funded research aims to disrupt health disparities.

Do biases impact pediatric cancer patients’ diagnosis and treatment? Why are older adult females with mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) more likely to fall than males?

Answers to these and other patient care questions could help shrink the U.S. healthcare divide. That’s the goal of MITRE-funded research grants recently awarded through our partnership with Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU).

Five university faculty received $5,000 each toward their proposals to uncover obstacles to quality healthcare, specifically within underrepresented populations. This includes Black Americans, sexual minorities, and other marginalized communities.

The MITRE grants are the first in a new specialty area of ORAU-directed research in health disparities and equity.

James Cook, MITRE vice president, strategic engagement and partnerships, says this kind of applied research is a priority for MITRE and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“We’re investing in this work to amplify the voices of people frequently left out of key health discussions and policies,” Cook says.

“Once we identify the roadblocks to care, we can develop solutions to build in equity from the start.”

Better-Informed Patient Care

Understanding what keeps millions of people from getting the healthcare they need requires pinpointing the nuances behind disparities. It also requires meaningful data—large volumes of it.

For Xiaolei Huang at the University of Memphis, that means studying health disparities and equity for children from different demographic groups diagnosed with cancer.

“We’re collaborating with researchers from St. Jude Children's Research Hospital to explore how biases in machine learning models could lead to missed treatment opportunities for patients from racial or ethnic minority groups,” he says.

Huang says the research will help create a knowledge database to develop guidelines for healthcare providers, reducing communication barriers for patients and parents.

That’s exactly the type of impact MITRE and our sponsors want: using research findings to inform and improve healthcare protocols and practices in the field for better outcomes for all patients.

“Healthcare is a social equity issue that matters to MITRE and each of our sponsors,” says Chris Folk, director, strategic partnerships.

“Partnering with ORAU gives us an opportunity to do things at scale when their over 150 [member] universities convene to tackle complex public challenges.”

A case in point: All grant winners received an additional $5,000 through ORAU’s Ralph E. Powe Junior Faculty Enhancement Awards Program, bringing the total award to $10,000. MITRE’s grants represent $25,000 of this year’s Powe Awards, which further the research and professional growth of junior faculty.

Besides Huang, other grant recipients are Deborah Jehu, Augusta University; Jillian Scheer, Syracuse University; Mary Ellen Stitt, University at Albany, State University of New York (SUNY); and Asha Winfield, Louisiana State University.

Without question, health equity is critical to public and national well-being.

James Cook, MITRE vice president, strategic engagement and partnerships

Public Good as the End Goal

Submissions came in from researchers across the country through ORAU’s consortium members. A multidisciplinary panel of MITRE evaluators assessed proposals for feasibility, impact, and scale.

“As evaluators, our diverse academic backgrounds and perspectives help us see the strengths and limitations from all angles,” says Carol Ward, public health expert and one of five MITRE evaluators.

“We can determine if something is doable or suggest what could be done differently.”

Janet Hinchcliff, who leads health analysis and transformation, adds, “Early researchers need to get established in their research areas and learn how to put forth good information for acceptance and grants. We’re encouraging that growth.”

The well-informed feedback is valuable even to those who don’t receive funding—not unlike entrepreneurs who pitch ideas on ABC’s "Shark Tank."

But as evaluator Alex Case, biomedical systems engineer, says, “We’re not coming from the VC [venture capital] side with a focus on the bottom line. We offer an independent viewpoint, and our goal is to support ideas with the most potential impact.”

The MITRE panel also evaluated proposals for their access to quality data.

“In the healthcare space, collaborative work agreements work well for obtaining clinical data,” Case explains. “We looked for proposals with a connection to the data to make the research achievable.”

Ward adds that while “innovative research may be happening on a small scale, this is an opportunity to support research that’s relevant to our sponsors and reach a wider audience.”

Jehu at Augusta University hopes to “inform sex-specific fall-risk screening protocols and fall-prevention interventions in older adults with mTBI.”

Syracuse University’s Scheer will identify novel interventions to reduce the lethal combination of post-traumatic stress disorder and hazardous drinking among sexual minority populations, particularly women.

Winfield at Louisiana State University is researching Black Americans’ experiences during the pandemic to “bring our stories to science and to remember lives lost beyond the statistical data.”

Stitt at SUNY-Albany is studying variation in court-mandated mental healthcare—and opportunities for innovation in administering care.

Partnering for Impact

Partnerships are a bedrock of MITRE’s success. Through broad collaboration with government, industry, academia, standards bodies, and professional organizations, we achieve what no entity can do alone.

“If it’s a problem worthy of solving, it’s going to need more than just MITRE working on solutions,” Folk says.

MITRE Technical Fellow Samuel Visner is an ORAU board member. This connection strengthens “support of joint customers like the U.S. Department of Energy and builds the pipeline of the next generation of technical expertise,” says Russ Lewis, MITRE principal for strategic outreach and engagements.

The solutions to come out of this latest MITRE-ORAU effort will contribute to more-equitable healthcare across communities.  

“When individuals and families lack access to healthcare that meets their needs, they’re less secure,” Cook says.

“Our mission—and our responsibility—is solving problems for a safer world. Without question, health equity is critical to public and national well-being.”