ECU researchers contributing to state digital, health equity initiatives

East Carolina University faculty are part of an inter-institutional research team focused on advancing health equity by promoting digital inclusion for agricultural workers and their families in North Carolina.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Rural Health, in partnership with ECU and North Carolina State University, secured a five-year, nearly $6 million Community Partnerships to Advance Science for Society award from the National Institutes of Health for the proposed Agricultural Workers Digital Equity Initiative.

The ECU research team is composed of Joseph Lee and Leslie Cofie, both from the Department of Health Education and Promotion within the College of Health and Human Performance, and Jamie Bloss, a faculty member from Laupus Health Sciences Library and the liaison librarian to the College of Allied Health Sciences and School of Dental Medicine. Two undergraduate students each year also will be part of ECU’s research team.

This project builds on prior work in partnership between ECU Libraries and the ECU College of Health and Human Performance, funded by the National Network of Libraries of Medicine, National Library of Medicine, State Library of North Carolina and Institute of Museum and Library Services.

More than 90,000 farmworkers and their family members are estimated to live in North Carolina, and the $100-billion-a-year agriculture industry in the state is dependent on a healthy workforce. The goal of the Agricultural Workers Digital Equity Initiative is to increase agricultural workers’ access to digital health services and emergency communication through affordable, reliable high-speed internet. This goal and ECU’s research will help build a stronger workforce in eastern North Carolina, seeking to improve the health and well-being of agricultural workers and address the digital divide to ensure access to telehealth and connections to health information.

“Because of the innovative work and partnerships in this project, agricultural workers in North Carolina are going to have better access to health care and be able to connect with families when they are far from home,” Lee said. “Everyone has a responsibility to make healthy choices, but we as a community also have to make sure there is access to internet, so everyone has an opportunity to be connected.”

Bloss is leading the effort to identify best practices for the project and ensuring project data is documented and available for future research. Cofie guides all qualitative work, including analyzing agricultural worker interviews. Lee is leading the evaluation of the research project.

“This project is an example of ECU’s commitment to be a future-focused, innovation-driven campus that engages with communities to bring technical expertise and new ideas to bear on the critical issues we face,” said Sharon Paynter, ECU’s acting chief research and engagement officer. “Through this initiative, ECU faculty, staff and students will deliver on the university’s promise to contribute to improving rural health and well-being of eastern N.C. and beyond. We are thrilled for the team to begin this important work.”

Within the NCDHHS Office of Rural Health, the Farmworker Health Program will administer the NIH award. Farmworker Health Program manager Elizabeth Freeman Lambar will lead the research team. The project will engage agricultural workers across the state, along with the existing N.C. Agriculture Digital Alliance and a planned Health Equity Research Assembly, to gather information that will guide the project.

ECU’s researchers will work with N.C. State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences to propose strategies to promote digital inclusion and test them based on input from agricultural workers and community partners.

Research reported in this release was supported by the National Institutes of Health Common Fund, under award number OT2OD035636. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.


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