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Texas researchers map out parts of Houston most vulnerable to COVID-19

The most at-risk areas are in poorer industrial parts of Houston. Getty Images

A group of researchers from the University of Texas and the University of Houston have created a mapping tool for identifying which parts of the greater Houston area are at the greatest risk from COVID-19.

"The map offers a comparative look at vulnerabilities across Harris County, and could help policy makers determine how to allocate coronavirus tests and health and safety resources," says Amin Kiaghadi, a research associate at UT's Oden Institute for Computational Engineering & Sciences and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Houston, in a news release.

The study, which is posted on MedRxiv, looked into access to health care, pollutant exposure, and medical insurance coverage. Kiaghadi and two UH professors, Hanadi Rifai and Winston Liaw, concluded that the areas most at risk were in the east and northeastern parts of town — especially industrial areas and high-traffic waterways.

The research showed that the highest risk areas were identified as poorer communities, like the area near the Houston Ship Channel. Consequently, populations with lower risk are in the far west areas of Harris County, which tend to be considered nicer areas. According to the release, around 17 percent of the county's population falls into a risk category.

"I'm really interested to see how decision makers look at these maps," Kiaghadi continues. "They can say 'this specific area is vulnerable to many different things—people living there have lower income, they have or they don't have access to the medical care— and that can change the way that they distribute the resources."

Kiaghadi usually focuses on floodwaters spread contamination, and he postulates that his work in this field had an application within the pandemic.

"We believe that if you're exposed to some chemicals for a long time or you were living in an area with bad air quality, that can affect your immune system long term and then make you more vulnerable to a disease like COVID-19," Kiaghadi says. "So we decided to take a new approach here and show that these factors should be considered."

Based on census data, the map is divided up into 786 polygons and looks into 46 different variables in five categories:

  1. People with limited access to hospitals and medical care.
  2. People with underlying medical conditions.
  3. People with exposures to environmental pollutants.
  4. People in areas vulnerable to natural disasters and flooding.
  5. People with specific lifestyle factors, like obesity, drinking and smoking.

According to the release, the researchers formulated the map within just a couple weeks.

"We already had a lot of knowledge and experience working with this sociodemographic data, and population vulnerability to the flaws in the environment and exposure," Kiaghadi says. "So we felt like, this is totally related to our research, so why not explore what it means?"

The map is broken down by 786 census tracts. Graphic via utexas.edu

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Building Houston

 
 

Koda Health, Houston, uses AI to help guide difficult conversations in health care, starting with end-of-life care planning. Image via kodahealthcare.com

A new Houston-based digital advanced care planning company is streamlining some of the most difficult conversations in the health care industry around palliative care.

Founded by Tatiana Fafanova, Dr. Desh Mohan, and Katelin Cherry, Koda Health uses AI to help patients create advance medical care directives and documents—such as a living will—through an easy to use web-based interface.

Koda Health uses a conversational platform where users can enter information about their values, living situations, quality of life wishes, and more while learning about different care options at their own speed. It also uses a proprietary machine learning approach that personalizes audio-video guided dialogue based on the patient's individual and cultural preferences.

The app then autogenerates legal and medical documents, which patients can notarize or electronically witness the forms through the app or on their own.

According to Fafanova, who earned her PhD in in Molecular Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and now acts as the company's CEO, what historically has been a time consuming and expensive process, through Koda Health, takes an average of 17 minutes and is completely free of charge to the end user.

"We hope to reduce any outstanding barriers to access that might exist," Fafanova says. "It is very frequently the oldest and the poorest that are the highest utilizers of health care that don't have access to these solutions."

The app is also projected to save health care systems roughly $9,500 per patient per year, as it allows for hospitals and organizations to better plan for what their patient population is seeking in end-of-life-care.

The B2B platform was born out of the TMC's Biodesign Fellowship, which tasked Koda's founding members with finding solutions to issues surrounding geriatric care in the medical center. In March 2020, Koda incorporated. Not long after ICU beds began to fill with COVID-19 patients, "galvanizing" the team's mission, Fafanova says.

"It was no longer this conceptual thing that we needed to address and write a report on. Now it was that people were winding up in the hospital at alarming rates and none of those individuals had advanced care planning in place," she says.

After accelerating the development of the product, Koda Health is now being used by health care systems in Houston, Texas, and Virginia.

The company recently received a Phase I grant of $256,000 from the National Science Foundation, which will allow Koda to deploy the platform at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist and test it against phone conversations with 900 patients. Fafanova says the company will also use the funds to continue to develop personalization algorithms to improve Kona's interface for users.

"We want to make this a platform that mimics a high quality conversation," she says.

After Koda completes the Phase I pilot program it will then be eligible to apply for a Phase II award of up to $1 million in about a year.

Koda Health was founded by Tatiana Fafanova, Dr. Desh Mohan, and Katelin Cherry. Photos via kodahealthcare.com

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