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Arnold School of Public Health

Big data continues to help scientists assess impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Next up: mental health for people living with HIV

October 18, 2022 | Erin Bluvas,

Shan Qiao, an associate professor with the Department of Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior (HPEB) and the South Carolina Smartstate Center for Healthcare Quality (CHQ), has been awarded more than $107K to investigate mental health issues faced by people living with HIV during the COVID-19 pandemic. The supplemental grant from the National Institutes of Mental Health is an extension of a $3 million project awarded to HPEB professor and CHQ director Xiaoming Li earlier this year.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively affected people’s mental health around the globe,” Qiao says. “These effects may be especially compounded among some vulnerable populations such as people living with HIV.”

More than half of the 1.2 million American living with HIV are 50 years of age and over. As older adults, they have a high prevalence of additional health challenges. These include the effects of aging and compromised immune systems as well as chronic conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure – all of which put them at risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

CHQ researchers, often in partnership with the UofSC Big Data Health Science Center, are already investigating various aspects of health care access and treatment for people living with HIV. Using big data from their cohort of the 20K+ people living with HIV in South Carolina and other sources, they are researching stigma, viral suppression, outcomes, and other factors related to HIV prevention and management.

The COVID-19 pandemic required the scientists to launch additional projects, including the development of data-driven strategies to fight COVID-19 and assessment of various effects of the pandemic (e.g., maternal health disparities, telehealth access, long COVID, co-infection of HIV and SARS-CoV-2, COVID-19 vaccine efficacy among people living with HIV, older adults with HIV and COVID-19). The team is tackling the most complex issues facing some of the most vulnerable populations, and they’re leveraging big data to do it.

“Disruption of HIV-related health care, fears of existing conditions and COVID-19, elevation of stigma, financial hardship and anxiety towards the COVID-19 vaccination all contribute to exacerbated mental health outcomes and disparities for people living with HIV,” Qiao says. “NIH’s All of Us Research Program presents a unique opportunity to better understand and address these complex issues by offering a rich dataset of information concerning a large, nationwide cohort of people living with HIV.”

Using their expertise in big data methodology and resilience approaches, Qiao and her team including health services policy and management assistant professor Chen Liang, will look at multiple datasets of electronic health records and other survey data provided by All of Us. Their goal is to examine trends and patterns of mental health outcomes among people living with HIV before and after the COVID-19 outbreak and identify protective factors (e.g., resilience, social support networks, uninterrupted care) that may be connected to better mental health for individuals in this group.

“This study will help us design and deliver resilience-based mental health promotion interventions among people living with HIV,” Qiao says. “These efforts will allow us to address mental health disparities and improve the wellbeing of these and other marginalized groups – particularly during a public health emergency.”


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