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The Center for Virtual Care Value and Equity will promote translational research in virtual care to advance the availability of quality health care.

A computer and a laptop with a stethoscopeThe University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has been awarded a $3.73 million grant from the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences for a five-year project to establish the Center for Virtual Care Value and Equity (ViVE).

The center is led by Saif Khairat, associate professor and Beerstecher-Blackwell Distinguished Term Scholar in the UNC School of Nursing. Khairat is a leader in the field of virtual care whose national and international projects have enhanced health care services and research, specifically within the digital health world.

“This groundbreaking initiative is pivotal for health care innovation and demonstrates Carolina’s leadership in virtual care research,” says Khairat, associate director of the Carolina Health Informatics Program and director of the Carolina Applied Informatics Research Lab. “The Center for ViVE will foster expertise in virtual care data and create workforce development opportunities with its partners throughout North Carolina and the nation.”

Virtual care — the use of online services, remote monitoring, and text-based messaging to deliver health care services remotely — has increased in popularity due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there are still many challenges to adopting and sustaining this method of care and more research is needed to create feasible and sustainable virtual care systems. With this funding, Khairat and co-investigators will create the foundation needed to support the advancement of translational research in this field.

“We are very fortunate to have such an amazing community at Carolina and throughout the region to support this work,” says ViVE co-investigator and UNC Health Chief Medical Informatics Officer David McSwain. “With world-class information resources, incredible clinicians, and leadership across the institution dedicated to supporting health and well-being for all, this collaborative effort can truly change the landscape of virtual care development not only in North Carolina, but around the world.”

ViVE will build a repository of real-world virtual care data not previously available to researchers. The center will also develop frameworks to guide investigators through the design, implementation, and evaluation of virtual care research, offering training and support throughout the process.

UNC’s North Carolina Translational and Clinical Sciences (NC TraCS) Institute will support ViVE in drawing expertise from collaborators across Carolina and UNC Health, as well as virtual care and telehealth researchers from RTI International, the American Heart Association, American Medical Association, and American Academy of Pediatrics.

“This award is a recognition of the special expertise of our institution and the central role that Dr. Khairat and members of his terrific team have played in furthering our understanding of this powerful resource in health care” says Nicholas Shaheen, co-director of NC TraCS and chief of the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology in the UNC School of Medicine. “We expect this group to advance the availability of quality health care beyond the walls of the clinic, especially to those traditionally underserved by American medicine.”

While telehealth services have made health care more convenient to some groups, certain populations remain underserved due to lack of access to technology and financial instability. The challenge of promoting health equity in virtual care is often overlooked due to the complex issues involved in implementing virtual care, such as patient privacy, reimbursement models, new workflows, and technology adoption.

ViVE’s library of real-world data coupled with implementation and evaluation frameworks will accelerate equity research in virtual care. ViVE will also leverage partnerships across the broader NIH Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) Program network by producing resources and information that will fill that critical gap in health access and equity. The network will help disseminate and promote ViVE tools, educational resources, and training events.

“During the pandemic, we all realized virtual care’s importance,” says Spencer Dorn, ViVE co-investigator and professor of medicine in the UNC School of Medicine. “The newly funded center will help us determine how to harness virtual care to benefit all populations. This is core to our mission as the nation’s oldest public university.”

The center will provide opportunities for investigators and students at UNC-Chapel Hill who are interested in virtual care research to request data, consult with experts, and attend education and training events. Work to establish the Center for ViVE began on August 1, 2023, and will continue for the next five years.

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