PhRMA Foundation awards grants to fight health disparities with digital health tools

The PhRMA Foundation (PhF) awarded $500,000 grants to David G. Armstrong, DPM, MD, PhD, of the University of Southern California and Nino Isakadze, MD, MHS, of Johns Hopkins University to conduct research using digital health technologies (DHTs) to improve health equity and health outcomes for patients. 

Armstrong and Isakadze were selected out of a group of seven researchers awarded $25,000 planning grants in 2023 by the Foundation to develop comprehensive research proposals to study the use of DHTs for advancing patient health, especially in underserved populations. 

Digital health technologies have great potential to improve health care broadly, but they could be especially impactful for underserved communities if we design and test them with equity in mind. These studies will engage diverse populations to develop digital health solutions targeting treatment challenges for patients with diabetes and heart arrhythmia.” 

Amy M. Miller, PhD, President of the PhRMA Foundation

Armstrong, a professor of surgery and neurological surgery at Keck School of Medicine of USC, will lead a project that aims to improve treatment for diabetic foot ulcers (DFU) using special smart boots that relieve pressure from specific areas of the foot. DFUs affect 15% of patients with diabetes -; more than 1 million people annually -; and if inadequately treated, can lead to amputation. Individuals from racial and ethnic minority groups are more likely to develop DFUs, receive amputations, and experience complications, leading to a lower survival rate. 

While pressure offloading boots are considered the gold standard of care for DFU, patients struggle with using them because of discomfort, aesthetics, and mobility restrictions. Armstrong’s team seeks to improve patient outcomes with a new smart boot design that allows for remote monitoring of patient activity and adherence to the treatment. 

“This grant from the PhRMA Foundation empowers us to enhance our smart offloading boots, tailoring them to fit the unique cultural and behavioral aspects of minority populations who are most at risk for hospitalization and amputation,” Armstrong said. “Our project is a step forward in making state-of-the-art health care accessible and equitable for all, particularly those in underserved communities.” 

Isakadze, a clinical cardiac electrophysiology fellow and incoming faculty at Hopkins’ School of Medicine, will lead a project to test a digital health intervention for the management of atrial fibrillation (Afib), the most common type of heart arrhythmia. Afib is associated with poor quality of life and increased risk of stroke, heart attack, and death. Evidence shows that modifying risk factors such as weight, physical activity, and tobacco and alcohol use can reduce Afib burden. 

Isakadze’s team is working with diverse patients, clinicians, and key stakeholders to design and test an Afib care management program that integrates 1) an Apple watch to track heart health data 2) a mobile app to educate and empower patients in tracking their health and setting health goals, 3) a clinician dashboard with patient data from the mobile app and smartwatch, and 4) individualized weekly health coaching to promote adherence to the virtual program. 

“Receiving the PhRMA Foundation grant will allow us to generate robust evidence to support the use of digital health technologies to enable risk factor modification for diverse patients with Afib and bridge the critical gap in Afib management,” Isakadze said. “I am confident that digital health tools have tremendous potential to reach people where they are and transform health care delivery.” 

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