Dr. Stephanie Morain, assistant professor in the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy (320x24
Dr. Stephanie Morain, assistant professor in the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy

The rise of the Zika virus has caused worldwide concern, largely for its potential to cause serious birth defects. With Houston at particularly high risk for transmission of the disease, the Texas Medical Center has awarded Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy a $168,885 grant to execute its plan to develop practical strategies to encourage effective, evidence-based policymaking to promote public health, focusing specifically on Zika policymaking efforts.

“A critical barrier to the delivery of high-quality care to Zika patients and effective prevention of future cases lies in the lack of coordinated healthcare policies and practice guidelines,” said Dr. Stephanie Morain, assistant professor in the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy and principal investigator of the project. “Significant groundwork must be done in order to translate evolving information about the virus into actionable policies at the institutional level, and this is what we are looking to accomplish.”

To secure the TMC grant, Morain and her colleagues laid out a framework to achieve this crucial policymaking, which consists of three key aims.

Analyzing challenges

The first aim in the team’s research plan is the identification and analysis of current and anticipated challenges presented by Zika that could be alleviated through healthcare policies and best practices. To determine these challenges, Morain and colleagues will engage in an in-depth interview process with key members across the TMC with clinical and policy expertise related to the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of Zika and review any existing hospital or associated policies and guidelines related to Zika management. This process will allow the research team to identify the areas most in need of policy development and reform.

Needs assessment

The second key research aim is the assessment of knowledge, concerns and psychological needs of pregnant women and their partners as they relate to the Zika virus. By conducting focus groups with pregnant women and their partners, the team will gain an understanding of the informational needs, healthcare concerns and discrepancies in psychological support associated with Zika during pregnancy.

Policy development

The third and final research aim is the development of a policy toolkit to encourage hospital systems to establish evidence-based, ethically appropriate policy addressing the Zika virus. Working with an advisory committee made up of leadership from various TMC institutions, Morain and her colleagues will propose policy and best practices to support effective Zika prevention and management.

“This study has the potential to be so impactful because it looks at Zika-related healthcare policies and practices empirically and addresses the need to identify these policies in order to support an effective Zika response, which can enhance the ability of healthcare systems to care for patients affected by Zika and potentially prevent future cases,” Morain said.

The completion of the three research aims will result in a practical model to encourage evidence-based, ethical policymaking that can be replicated in other healthcare settings to address concerns such as referrals and screenings for the tracking and clinical management of infants with Zika and knowledge gaps and psycho-social needs of women dealing with the virus.

The resulting toolkit and policies will be disseminated throughout the TMC, as well as through partners at the University of Miami, another at-risk community.

Other collaborators on this research include CHI St. Luke’s Health, Harris Health System, Harris County Public Health and Environmental Services, Houston Methodist System, Memorial Hermann Hospital, Texas Children’s Hospital and UT Health.