Designing Innovative Health Information Technology to Reduce Healthcare Disparities
Rupa Valdez, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Biomedical Informatics
Department of Public Health Sciences
University of Virginia
“AHRQ funding has allowed me to create a strong foundation for the inclusive design of consumer health information technologies. I’ve been able to focus on needs assessments that are essential for creating inclusive and appropriate systems for ethnic and racial minorities and people with disabilities who have chronic conditions.”
Rupa Valdez, Ph.D., an associate professor of Biomedical Informatics in the Department of Public Health Sciences at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, has dedicated her career to reducing health disparities by informing the design of consumer health information technologies (IT) that help diverse racial and ethnic groups and people with disabilities better manage their health.
Consumer health IT applications can facilitate patients' communication about their health with their social networks of family and friends. Social media platforms like Facebook help them connect with others affected by similar health conditions. Patients can use the technology to join virtual communities, find moral support, set goals, and track personal progress. Dr. Valdez wanted to take that a step further.
In 2010, Dr. Valdez received initial AHRQ support for her research career with a grant from AHRQ’s Health Services Research Dissertation Program. The aim of her doctoral dissertation was to create a design strategy specifically to lead to culturally-informed consumer health IT that patients and their social networks could use more easily. Dr. Valdez surmised that assessing a patient’s own daily routine in communicating about their health could address racial and ethnic disparities in healthcare, which helps patients better manage their health.
“In the context of health information communication, culture can influence the composition of one’s social network, the types of health information that one shares with others, the reasons for such sharing, and the modes of communication used for sharing health information. More broadly, culture can influence everything from the appropriate design of user interfaces to the appropriate presentation of health-related content,” said Dr. Valdez.
She led the development of the Culturally-Informed Design Framework as a guide for designers of consumer health IT. Designers can use this framework to conceptualize four dimensions of consumer health IT—technology platform, functionality, content, and user interface—in which design choices should be informed by a deep understanding of the users’ context and reality.
Dr. Valdez was awarded a small AHRQ grant in 2014 to assess the health IT needs and preferences of patients with Type 2 diabetes, with a particular emphasis on patients who self-identified as a racial and ethnic minority. She examined how they engaged on social media platforms and used this information to generate design guidance for this population.
“At the time, the design of health IT was rarely grounded in an in-depth assessment of users' needs and preferences, resulting in solutions that were not responsive to the full range of ways in which patients approached health management,” Dr. Valdez noted. Her research provided insights into the need for consumer health IT to allow for a range of choices that are more in line with the patients’ reasons for using the technology. “Technology that better meets patients' needs may lead to better self-management of health conditions, and therefore, improve overall health outcomes.”
In 2015, Dr. Valdez received another AHRQ grant to study how individuals with physical, cognitive, and sensory disabilities communicated health information within their social networks, as well as the challenges and barriers they encountered when accessing health IT.
“As healthcare has shifted to home- and community-based settings, multiple forms of consumer health IT were being created to support patients with their self-management responsibilities,” said Dr. Valdez. Her research provided guidance for mobile health apps, while identifying the challenges that people with disabilities face when using existing health IT solutions for health information communication and information.
Dr. Valdez’s research highlights the importance of creating design innovations that include a fuller range of human experiences and ergonomic best practices to meet patients’ needs outside hospitals. Her AHRQ-funded research helped to inform her congressional testimony (PDF, 205 KB) earlier this year about health equity gaps for people with disabilities and chronic conditions.
Dr. Valdez’s research also highlights how the COVID-19 pandemic may exacerbate the digital divide among some patients with disabilities, especially those with physical, sensory, and cognitive issues. For example, telehealth visits must be accessible to patients with vision or hearing loss or other disabilities in order to maintain equity in healthcare delivery.
Dr. Valdez serves on the Board of Directors of the American Association of People with Disabilities and on the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute’s Patient Engagement Advisory Panel. She is an associate editor at Ergonomics and the Journal of American Medical Informatics Association Open. In 2021, Dr. Valdez received the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society’s Jack A. Kraft Innovator Award.
Related AHRQ Resources
Principal Investigator: Rupa Valdez, Ph.D.
Institution: University of Virginia, Charlottesville
Grantee Since: 2010
Type of Grant: Various
Consistent with its mission, AHRQ provides a broad range of extramural research grants and contracts, research training, conference grants, and intramural research activities. AHRQ is committed to fostering the next generation of health services researchers who can focus on some of the most important challenges facing our Nation's health care system.
To learn more about AHRQ's Research Education and Training Programs, please visit https://www.ahrq.gov/training.