Member Spotlight

Q&A with Dr. Niko Verdecias

Niko Verdecias, DrPH, MPH

Assistant Professor of Population Health

College of Health Solutions, Arizona State University

Q: Tell us about yourself and your background?
A: I grew up in New York City, as I reflect on growing up in New York it really set the tone for my career path. I earned my Bachelor of Science from Syracuse University. Then I completed my Master of Public Health at SUNY Downstate in Brooklyn. I worked for several years in between getting my masters and going back to get my Doctor of Public Health from Drexel University in Philadelphia. After that I made my way to Washington University in St. Louis to do my postdoc fellowship and that was before joining the faculty at Arizona State University in the College of Health Solutions. I started at ASU last year, so I just completed my first academic year as faculty here in population health.

I title myself as a community engaged researcher as well as an intervention and implementation scientist. As my training and experience advanced and my observations developed, I realized I needed to marry all 3 of those entities to do what I wanted to. As a woman of Black, Latina, and Indigenous heritage, growing up in an urban community that was largely, low income I witnessed the impact of health disparities and inequities. Especially the impact that diabetes was having on my community in both adults and peers in my life. There was a generationally accepted message that diabetes is just a part of growing old. It wasn’t until I started my public health training that I quickly learned that diabetes is not only preventable but that there are interventions that are needed to change that narrative and improve the impact on communities of color, particularly marginalized and low-income.

Those early seeds of being in New York and seeing the impact that diabetes and other chronic diseases had in my community planted those seeds for me embarking on this career journey and to try to pour back into my communities

Q: What is the most compelling information that you’ve found in your research to date?
A: We all know that Diabetes care isn’t only in the doctor’s office, it goes home with the patient. There are challenges to diabetes self-management that far exceed what’s associated with health-related needs. My work focuses primarily on how to make diabetes self-management more effective by focusing on the competing and impeding needs those individuals have. Often those are needs related to having unmet social needs. Social needs are adverse social determinants of health that are associated with poor health outcomes. They are the fluctuating parts of everyday living experience like food insecurity, housing instability, utility insecurity, safety, and childcare. These often become the tradeoffs that people make when it comes to their social needs and their health needs. They will often be put in a position where they must prioritize being able to have enough food or being able to pay their light bill as opposed to putting aside some discretionary money to pay for the the costs associated with their doctors’ visits or with their diabetes care when comes to insulin and things like that.

My research has highlighted the impact that social needs have on diabetes care. The cumulation of a couple of studies that I’ve done is that there are often unexpressed social needs that can lead to an increase in chronic disease and emergency room visits. I think one of the most compelling statistical findings from my work is that individuals who have one social need usually have 3 to 4 comorbidities and individuals who have 2 or more social needs have at least 5 comorbidities. This is all supportive of making social needs assessments a routine part of diabetes treatment and management planning and an imperative action that we need to implement.

Q: Tell us about what you wish your research could solve right now/a burning question that your research could answer in the future?
A: My big research goal is to reduce the severity of the barriers such as unmet social needs have on diabetes and self-management among marginalized populations. The biggest question is how can we effectively and holistically improve diabetes self-management and remove those tradeoffs that competing social needs create. I think part of this is being able to bridge the efforts between the healthcare community, community organizations that provide health supportive services like diabetes self-management education workshops, and the individual. And then figuring out how do we make that continuum of screening, communication, and fulfilling resource gaps so that it gets back to the individual. Then we can create a stronger cycle where there’s not these tradeoffs that are being made that impact individual’s health and their efforts towards diabetes self-management.

I like to focus on partnering with community-based organizations that provide health support services. Community based organizations offer the perfect opportunity to not only screen but to empower individuals and connect them to the resources and the information that they need to better address their social needs and remove them as a challenge when it comes to addressing their diabetes needs. Then researchers will be better informed to ensure that the individuals get what they need through informed planning and actions. It’s really a collaborative effort to solve the problem.

Q: What type of service would be most useful for your developing career?
A: I’m very fortunate to have a lot of resources and networks that I’m a part of that have been so helpful in my early career. And I thought, what’s missing from that? What jumped out for me was developing a similar type of group like the CDTR, that extends to include community organizations and community members that act as advisors to researchers that want to develop and implement resources and interventions in various type of communities and focus on an array of topics. I’m thinking of this more like a super Community Advisory Board, where it’s not necessarily focused on one or two specific topics. This would be so helpful because if we’re trying to do work in a community everyone needs to be a part of the conversation at every opportunity, not just within the parameters of our research study where you create one for that. Bring all the voices to the table.

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