August 15, 2022

The story behind the data: Health economist Elham Mahmoudi translates her passion for numbers into research with implications for population health

Her work focuses on improving efficiency, quality and health outcomes through data that focuses on the intersection of aging, disability and disparity.

For Elham Mahmoudi, Ph.D., assistant professor and health economist, conducting research is like solving a puzzle. She looks for patterns in the data to answer questions about how to improve care for older adults, as well as individuals with disabilities, such as spinal cord injury or cerebral palsy.

Elham Mahmoudi, Ph.D.

“You come up with a (research) question … and you have to justify, why is it important and who cares? Then you have to go where you can find the answer to that question,” she says. “It raises your curiosity. It’s not a traditional job.”

Mahmoudi’s research focuses on improving efficiency, quality and health outcomes through data that focuses on the intersection of aging, disability and disparity. Most of her work has been devoted to determining the underlying factors associated with racial/ethnic disparities in healthcare.

An early love for math and science

Born in rural Iran, there were no doctors or hospitals where Mahmoudi grew up.  The significant barriers to care experienced by her family and the community would shape her career to come, as she asked questions about what impact limited access to care had on communities like hers around the world.

Coupled with a passion for math and sciences, Mahmoudi went on to graduate from the country’s top-ranked University of Shahid Beheshti in Tehran with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. She then moved to the United States with her husband Jamshid Sadaghiyani to pursue a master’s degree in computer information systems and an MBA from the University of Detroit-Mercy.

“When we came here, we were young adults and didn’t really know the language,” she said. “I (tackled) what life threw at me,” she said, emphasizing that her path was atypical of an academic medicine researcher, whose intent from the beginning is to pursue that career trajectory.

After graduate school, Mahmoudi worked at ABN AMRO, now known as Bank of America, as a programmer and analyst with the Information Technology Department for 10 years. When the bank started offshoring jobs, Mahmoudi decided to double down on her interest in economics and pursued a Ph.D. at Wayne State University.

A researcher is born

It was in working on a National Institute on Aging-funded, pre-doctoral project through the Institute for Gerontology at WSU that Mahmoudi’s interest in studying older populations took spark. The project she supported during her time with the institute set the path for research she continues to conduct today.

“It makes sense to focus on (older) individuals and to make a healthcare system more efficient and to reduce hospitalizations for people,” she said. “My specialty research area started accidentally but now I’m hooked. I think it’s fascinating (to learn how) we can keep them out of the hospital and keep them as healthy as long as we can and living with dignity.

Arriving at the University of Michigan

Mahmoudi came to the University of Michigan in 2012, serving a post-doctoral fellowship in U-M’s Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation. She then served as a research assistant professor for three years in the Department of Surgery, where she learned how to conduct insurance claims database research.

She finally arrived in the Department of Family Medicine in 2017. Her tenure application was approved in the summer of 2022 and she will assume her role as associate professor effective September 1, 2022.

“I like the people in the Department of Family Medicine and I like what I do,” she said. “One thing I really like is they don’t micromanage the research that you do. That comes very organically. For me, it’s home. I’m happy here.”

Mahmoudi continues to focus on conducting claims data research – analyzing large data sets using diagnostic and procedure codes and other anonymized patient data to find patterns relevant to patient outcomes. She is also part of the Mixed Methods Program, housed within the Department of Family Medicine, where she is learning how to bring in more of the patients’ narrative behind the data.

Additionally, she is creating new artificial intelligence/machine learning collaborations at U-M. One aspect of this larger collaboration is the creation of two natural language processing algorithms to identify patients’ caregiver availability and social determinants of health (i.e. housing, food, transportation, financial insecurities and social isolation). The initiative aims to help primary care providers understand more about the social needs of their patients to better support their patients throughout their care journey.

Mahmoudi and her research colleagues assert that this collaboration has the potential to help advance population health and improve healthcare delivery, equity and quality.

“I don’t want to do research just for the sake of research,” she said. “I want to do something with high impact. If we can change policy, that would have great impact on a lot of people.”

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