November 9, 2009

UMd medical school gets $5 million in stimulus funds for rural research

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By Andy Rosen
Andy@MarylandReporter.com

The University of Maryland School of Medicine announced Monday that it is getting nearly $5 million in federal stimulus money to increase the reach of its medical research into rural and minority communities.

The money will also be used to institute a program in Western Maryland and Southern Maryland that will look into the effectiveness of remote monitoring for patients with chronic conditions. An announcement is was held in Charles County.

The money comes in two grants given to the school through the National Institutes of Health. One is a $2.4 million grant that will provide two years of funding for a new national Bioethics Research Center. The center will try to get more minority and rural subjects to participate in medical research.

The remote care study will be paid for through a $2.5 million grant, also from the NIH. Researchers will work with 250 patients who have chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. Those patients will get home equipment to monitor characteristics such as blood sugar and blood pressure, which will allow home care nurses to check in on them remotely and contact them if signs are abnormal.

Officials defended the use of federal stimulus money, saying that the projects will add working class jobs and help business for some existing firms while furthering research. According to a statement from Rep. Steny Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat and House majority leader, the remote care study creates 12 jobs and preserves 14.

Claudia Baquet, associate dean for the Office of Policy and Planning and director of the Center for Health Disparities at the medical school, said the project will help further some work that has already been done at the university.

The School of Medicine released a report in July that detailed lower-than-expected participation in federally-funded cancer treatment trials by rural and minority populations in Maryland. Baquet said it is important that all segments of the population participate in research.

If minorities are underrepresented, researchers can fail to find characteristics that are unique to some ethnic groups. And in rural areas, Baquet said many residents have similar issues with access to medical care.

“Typically for clinical trials, they have traditionally been [conducted] at academic institutions in large urban areas,” Baquet said, which can make it hard for rural residents to participate. “They may not be able to travel. They may not have the resources to travel.”

Commonly with both minorities and rural residents, she said the issue boils down to trust in the medical system. That is one of the elements that Baquet says makes this a worthwhile economic stimulus project. The new center will enlist organizers to help them gain traction in targeted communities.

Those new hires do not have to be researchers, she said.

“It’s essential that the organizers have the credibility in the community, which the academics do not,” said Baquet.

State Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton, D-Charles, said an existing telecare program has been successful in his district. He said the grants are important for rural care.

“Even though we are mostly suburban, we have a lot of rural areas and under-served minorities,” Middleton said. “What I find really good about it is, this money helps address this big gap in health care that we have.”