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Wiecha receives grant to study face-to-face vs. virtual health education for African-American women

(Boston) - BUSM Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs John Wiecha, MD, MPH, in the Department of Family Medicine, has received a National Institutes of Health (NIH) American Recovery & Reinvestment Act (ARRA) Challenge grant from the National Library of Medicine. The grant, valued at more than $950,000 will fund a study to provide health education to African-American women with type-2 diabetes.

The health education will be conducted either face-to-face or by using the three-dimensional virtual world, "Second Life". Participants in Second Life will create avatars, three dimensional computer representations of themselves, which they can navigate through virtual worlds. In this virtual world, patient participants will walk into buildings, sit with other patient avatars, and participate in discussions as they would in a physical world, except that they don't leave their homes or travel. Potentially this will provide more accessible health education opportunities. It is also possible that the relative anonymity of this environment will encourage patients to disclose more information about that could help them overcome barriers to healthier life styles.

"We are challenging the so-called "digital divide" that assumes that low-income patients are less able to utilize the Web for health promotion purposes," explained John Wiecha, MD, MPH. The study seeks to determine how feasible the Second Life method is for this type of health education, and how it compares to the face-to-face method."

Participants will be recruited from Boston Medical Center and BMC health centers. They will be randomly placed into groups receiving their diabetes education in face-to-face groups at BMC, or receiving it via Second Life while at home.

The online group will receive a computer and access the Internet if necessary. Both groups will participate in 12 diabetes education groups, and four individual counseling sessions. Subjects will complete surveys before and after the study to measure changes in physical activity, diet, and use of medications, and will have blood tests drawn at BMC before and after the study to measure changes in diabetes control and cholesterol. They will also have blood pressure measured before and after the study period. Dr. Wiecha is collaborating with Dr. Milagros Rosal, a Co-Principal Investigator on the project and a research health psychologist at UMASS Medical Center in Worcester.


Contact: Gina DiGravio
Boston University Medical Center

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