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BCSSW Professor Earns $2.5 Million Grant to Study Public Health Equity

Whitney Irie, an assistant professor in the Boston College School of Social Work (BCSSW), received a five-year, $2.5 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to develop a tool that measures equity in public health organizations.

Irie said she could not originally believe she actually won the grant.

“It took probably like two weeks before I said, ‘Oh yeah, I have this grant,’” Irie said. “‘I should probably start it, like this is real. This is really happening.’”

According to Irie, the grant comes from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director’s Pioneer Award, which provides funding for early-career researchers with outside-the-box research proposals that conventional funding sources might otherwise reject. 

“Historically, this award has been focused on people with these amazing labs who were getting closer to cures and understanding best treatment strategies and things of that sort in very innovative ways,” Irie said. “It seeks to fund high-risk, high-reward research that typically would not get funded through traditional NIH mechanisms.”

Irie’s tool is called the Health Equitability Assessment and Readiness Tool (HEART). Irie said her long-term goal is that public health organizations—both those seeking funding and those that provide funding—will use the HEART tool to assess how successful they are in reaching and treating diverse groups of patients. 

“I would like for it to be an open-access tool for folks to just kind of check in with their programming and organizations to make sure that they’re really in alignment with what equity looks like, in their context,” Irie said.

According to Irie, in recent years, researchers have extensively studied health equity. She observed, however, that health professionals can find it difficult to define what equity means in practice and how they can measure it within their organizations. 

“Part of the frustration that I was hearing anecdotally from practitioners—those who are program leaders in organizations—was a lack of clarity around what health equity means,” Irie said. 

With her research, Irie hopes to discover what features and practices allow health organizations to best serve patients who have traditionally been subjected to discrimination and lower-quality health care.

“There are some organizational characteristics that distinguish [an organization] to make them more or less better-positioned to reach their equity goals,” Irie said. “And my study hopes to tap into that.”

According to Irie, the bulk of the grant will be devoted to gathering insight from both patients and health professionals into what they think equity looks like and how they think it should be measured so she can incorporate it into the HEART tool.

“I largely want to allocate it toward ensuring that the communities and the organizations that could benefit from the tool have an opportunity to use the tool in real-time and give me some meaningful feedback about how it should look, how it should feel, and was it helpful to them,” Irie said. 

To create the HEART tool, Irie is collaborating with Larry Houston Ludlow, Professor Emeritus for the measurement, evaluation, statistics, and assessment department in the Lynch School of Education and Human Development.

According to Ludlow, the HEART tool’s design is innovative because instead of simply rating themselves on a scale like traditional surveys, organizations are asked to compare their policies and practices to hypothetical scenarios depicting both low and high equity levels.

“This will be a novel assessment and the idea is to try to locate where an organization is on this continuum of equity capacity,” Ludlow said.

Karen Bullock, the Louise McMahon Ahearn Endowed Professor in the BCSSW, serves as Irie’s mentor and works to apply health equity to public health. Bullock said she believes that Irie’s project will help move the field in a new direction.

“This tool is a bold step [toward] not just identifying, but measuring equity impact,” Bullock said. “People often state it is too complicated or complex, however, Dr. Irie’s HEART tool will disrupt that narrative.” 

According to Bullock, Irie’s award is a significant achievement and one that aligns closely with BCSSW’s mission.

“Dr. Irie is the first BCSSW faculty member to receive this very competitive and prestigious award,” Bullock said. “She has come to BCSSW to further the vision and commitment to equity and social justice.”

Correction (Nov. 4, 2023 12:45pm): This article was corrected to reflect Larry Ludlow’s title post-retirement. 

November 1, 2023