AUSTIN, Texas — Building on their groundbreaking inaugural summit last year, health scholars from The University of Texas at Austin and leading institutions in Mexico reconvened last week to design and conduct binational research projects aimed at improving health on both sides of the border.
Three dozen researchers took part in the summit called “Puentes: Using Convergence Science in Population Health,” hosted by Dell Medical School at UT Austin. Puentes, which means “bridges” in Spanish, connects experts in disparate disciplines with the goal of tackling major population health challenges.
Several participants represented Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, an academic institution partnering with Dell Med to establish a long-term relationship to develop a care delivery model to improve health in the Mexican state of Puebla and to adapt those discoveries to enhance care approaches here in Central Texas.
This year’s topics included diabetes among aging populations in Mexico, the health effects of gentrification, fatherhood-focused prenatal health and developing effective primary health care systems for chronic diseases in poor, marginalized communities.
“Big picture: We’re aiming to have an impact on successfully addressing health challenges in Mexico and Texas,” said Ricardo Ainslie, Ph.D., director of the LLILAS Mexico Center at UT Austin and an affiliate faculty member at Dell Med’s Department of Population Health.
A few of the groups involved in the first Puentes Summit secured grants and funding for research projects based on their work — and are now moving forward with new goals and teammates, Ainslie said.
“Some of these projects are more Mexico-based; some of them are more Austin- and Texas-based. The local Latino population has children with diabetes or obesity with very similar profiles to the kids that team members are working with in Mexico. So, the two can inform each other, and we can learn better ways to address these issues early.”
Key to that process is leveraging common cultural characteristics and experiences in order to share and expand knowledge, said William Tierney, M.D., chair of Dell Med’s Department of Population Health.
“We are bringing population health researchers from differing disciplines together to improve population health in Central Texas,” Tierney said. “As close neighbors, we have ties both culturally and health-wise with Mexico, and when it comes to improving the health of populations, we can learn from each other.”
That’s the ambition of a team led by Michael Mackert, Ph.D., director of the Center for Health Communication, a joint center between Dell Med and UT Austin’s Moody College of Communication. Last month, Mackert launched a bilingual version of his app called “Father’s Playbook,” which helps expectant dads understand pregnancy and prepares them for after the baby comes.
“There’s a lot of evidence that more engaged dads lead to better outcomes for moms and babies, so the ‘Father’s Playbook’ was designed to meet the communication needs and preferences of expectant dads,” Mackert said. “The hope is we’ll end up with healthier moms, babies and dads.”
Carmen Valdez, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work and Dell Med’s Department of Population Health. Her team is working on an intersectional approach to addressing community trauma as diverse as natural disasters — like earthquakes and hurricanes — and human-made events such as mass shootings. Valdez and her colleagues are specifically interested in how those traumatic events affect communities already struggling with pervasive poverty, violence and housing instability.
“What we want to look at is not only how they experience that trauma, but how they experience resilience — how they stay strong,” Valdez said. “And then looking for ways in which that strength can manifest in the places they live in. One community might say, ‘We really need to work more on the infrastructure of our homes.’ Another one might decide that they want to work on helping build a sense of community cohesion. We’re hoping this case study can give those communities that sense of direction and purpose.”
The teams will continue their collaborations during the next year, conducting pilot studies, developing and executing projects, writing grant proposals and articles and traveling between Austin and Mexico to interact directly with partners and the public.
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