Health Disparities Study

Nursing dean examines effects of disability and mental illness on long-term health outcomes

Monday, Aug 12, 2019 • Elizabeth Couch : UT Arlington Media Relations

A dean at The University of Texas at Arlington is continuing her National Institutes of Health-funded research into health disparities, focusing on people with serious mental illness, minority populations and individuals who reside in rural areas.

“Research on these populations remain limited,” said Elizabeth Merwin, dean of the College of Nursing and Health Innovation. “There are significant preventable diseases along with unique challenges in obtaining health care, poor health outcomes and high costs of care.

“We seek to understand what health system and clinical care changes may be needed to address the unique needs of each population, to reduce health disparities and to bridge any gaps in care.”

The project began in 2016 when Merwin was a professor at Duke University and led an interdisciplinary team on a $3 million NIH project titled “Reducing Health Disparities in SMI (Serious Mental Illness), Rural and Minority Populations.” The grant has since transferred to UTA, where Merwin heads a multi-site study along with a principal investigator at the University of Delaware and other team members at Duke University and Stony Brook University.

Of the 38 million Americans who receive some form of Medicare assistance, approximately 6 million live with mental or physical disabilities. Merwin focuses her research on these subgroups of Medicare recipients, including the disabled with serious mental illnesses, those with physical disabilities, minority populations and those who reside in rural areas.

Merwin’s study, currently in its fourth year, addresses the effects of disability and comorbid mental illness in Medicare recipients under 65 years of age compared to those over 65. She said these comorbid mental health problems increase the complexity of care needed and may worsen long-term health outcomes.

In addition, the study analyzes self-care capacity and its relationship to health status; selected illness trajectories and health outcomes; the community capacity to support health; the quality of health care and the intersecting effects of gender, race and rurality.

“Understanding these factors is important because it may help clinicians target and determine where they can develop interventions to achieve better health outcomes,” Merwin said. “Ultimately, we seek to identify what helps people stay healthy, live longer and have a higher quality of life.”