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web emot econ feature dr pisuThroughout the pandemic, there has been a big focus on health disparities and the consequences they have on minorities. At UAB, we have world-renowned researchers that focus on determining why these disparities exist and ways to reduce the gap.

In the spirit of National Minority Health Month (April), we set out to help raise awareness for the different programs that operate out of the UAB Minority Health & Health Disparities Research Center. First, we spotlighted EMOT-ECON—which pays attention to the financial burden of a disease and its effect on a person’s emotional well-being.

To help you learn more about the woman leading this program, we are interviewing Maria Pisu, Ph.D. and professor in the Division of Preventive Medicine.

Q1: Tell me a little bit about yourself?

Dr. Pisu: I was born and raised in Italy, on the island of Sardinia. Here I graduated from undergraduate school in 1991 at the University of Cagliari.

Q2: Where did you attend school, and what degree were you pursuing? Were you seeking a specific career path?

Dr. Pisu: While at the University of Cagliari, I studied economics and business. At the time, I didn’t have a particular career path in mind, but I enjoyed studying and learning. After graduation I moved to the U.S. and started working toward my Ph.D. in economics at Pennsylvania State University.

After earning my Ph.D., I got a job at the CDC as a post-doc. In that role, I was being trained as a health economist. While I didn’t study health economics in my schooling, the concept of understanding cost-effective programs and the costs surrounding health care was very attractive to me.

While combining economics and health care wasn’t something I initially thought of, it felt natural to me once I was introduced to it. I became very interested in understanding the effect of health care costs on patients.

In Italy, we have a universal health care system. When I came here, I learned how expensive health care is and wondered, ‘how do people pay for this?

Q3: When did your interest in health disparities start?

Dr. Pisu: While at the CDC, I was introduced to health disparities because the studies conducted there always considered the diversity of the population—including low income and minorities.

It wasn’t until my position here at UAB that I received my first grant in health disparities. It was actually funded by the CDC and looked at the dropout from cancer treatment in Alabama.

Q4: What brought you to UAB?

Dr. Pisu: My husband got a job at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, so we decided to move to the area. While looking for jobs, I found a post-doc position at UAB in the Center for Outcomes and Effectiveness Research and Education. I then got an appointment in the Division of Preventive Medicine which is now where I am a professor.

Q5: Besides EMOT-ECON, what projects are you working on now?

Dr. Pisu: Currently, I am working on a few other projects.

First, I am working on a cancer center supplement that is conducting universal financial hardship screening in the gynecologic oncology clinic. Through this, with Maggie Liang who is a gynecologic oncologist, we are trying to proactively identify women who may have financial problems so they can receive assistance early in their treatment process. We hope that it will eliminate potential stressors for patients later down the road when they are attempting to receive treatment and navigate how they will be paying for it.

Another project I am working on is funded by the National Institutes on Minority Health Disparities (NIMHD) and I am the multiple PI with Dr. Selwyn Vickers. Here we are looking at surgical care disparities regarding people with GI cancers. This study is not only looking at the economic aspect of care but also access.

An essential part of this study will be answering questions such as, ‘is it easy for patients to get care?” “is it easy to set up an appointment?” and “is it acceptable for them to get care?” Our team will be looking into all of these perspectives. Currently, we are in the qualitative stage, conducting interviews with patients and providers. Next, we will do a survey of about 1000 people with GI cancer in Alabama and Mississippi.

Q6: Do you have any words of wisdom or advice for people interested in pursuing a career in health disparities? 

Dr. Pisu: I would say that perseverance pays off. In the field of health disparities, the issues can feel so large and almost impossible. However, you have to look a little bit deeper to find why disparities happen so that you may begin to learn how they may be solved.