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Summer Student Fellows Complete Research on Key Health Policy Issues

This past summer, in collaboration with Eastern Virginia Medical School’s Brock Institute for Community and Global Health, the Schroeder Center welcomed four student researchers as Schroeder Center – Brock Institute (SCBI) Fellows.  The Schroeder Center’s summer research program promotes and funds health policy research at W&M, with an emphasis on developing students’ skills in analyzing data, writing, and presenting results. 

This year’s fellows consisted of four W&M undergraduates. Each paired with a faculty mentor to conduct research on a pertinent health policy topic.

Brittany Young (Economics, ’20) studied whether Uber decreased the risks of drunk driving in Virginia.  Specifically, she analyzed how Uber’s introduction affected the rates of hospitalizations related to car accidents and the odds that fatal vehicular collisions involved alcohol.  Young’s work constitutes the first case study of this type in Virginia and focused specifically on young adults (the most common victims of drunk driving accidents).  Though Young found evidence that hospitalization rates decreased over time, this effect was not limited to localities where Uber began offering services.  Despite Uber’s claims to the contrary, Young found no support for the claim that ride-sharing apps reduce the risk of vehicular accidents in Virginia.  Young concluded that the lack of a causal relationship may be due to intoxicated drivers lacking the rational thought process to call an Uber rather than risk driving home, or drivers thinking that ridesharing is too expensive.

Conducting work on another prominent public health issue in Virginia, Tori Reese (Economics and Applied Math-Statistics, ’20) investigated the impact of cigarette taxes on smoking rates in the state.  She used data to search for links between smoking rates, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) hospitalizations, and hospitalizations due to asthma, in an effort to determine whether local cigarette taxation decreases smoking prevalence.  As she expected, Reese found a positive relationship between smoking prevalence and smoking-related hospitalizations.  In particular, she discovered that female daily smoking prevalence correlates very strongly with asthma hospitalization rates.  Reese also discovered that female smokers are roughly three times as sensitive to cigarette tax increases as male smokers.  However, she found that local taxation of cigarettes may not be an effective strategy to reduce smoking rates; Reese posits this may be due to sellers in neighboring localities escaping the impacts of cigarette taxation and therefore attracting smokers to buy in a nearby town.

Meanwhile, Carmen Lehnigk (Economics, ’19) studied the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) insurance coverage expansions, which targeted working-age adults, and was interested in whether they had effects that “spilled over” onto Medicare beneficiaries in Virginia.  Lehnigk found that elderly Medicare recipients undergoing elective procedures had longer hospital stays after the ACA expansion in counties where that expansion reached more previously-uninsured non-elderly adults.  Lehnigk hypothesized that this outcome may be the result of increased demand taking advantage of previously-underutilized healthcare resources.  Alternatively, she believes the ACA’s provisions that accommodated increased demand on the healthcare system may have actually overcompensated for the change.  Either way, Lehnigk proposed more research to clarify the potential positive spillover effects seen in elective elderly Medicare hospitalization duration. 

Finally, McKinley Saunders’ (Economics, ‘19) project, “Need Based Donor Response in Nigeria,” analyzed an important health issue using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) analysis and tools.  Motivated by alarmingly-high child mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa, Saunders researched the impacts of geographic distributions of humanitarian aid in high-risk areas of Nigeria.  Working together with her faculty mentor, Professor Carrie Dolan, Saunders incorporated a large amount of health-related data into her analysis, including figures on the prevalence of common illnesses, prenatal and postnatal care, access to anti-malaria medication and bed nets, and a host of other variables. 

The W&M summer fellows, along with three fellows from Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS), presented their findings in a videoconference in late July.  Attendees included faculty from W&M and EVMS as well as many parents, grandparents, and other family and friends who joined in to view the presentations in real time.  After the conference, Jim Ducibella from W&M’s media relations team wrote a piece featuring Young’s project, which was picked up by various media outlets.