Mathew Alexander, a VCU grad and rising second-year VCU medical student, is working with two other experts to report on the United States' response to COVID-19 for the World Health Organization. (Courtesy of Mathew Alexander)

VCU medical student one of three U.S. ‘country experts’ on WHO’s COVID-19 response project

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A Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine student is one of three experts providing information to the World Health Organization on the United States’ health policy response to COVID-19.

Rising second-year medical student Mathew Alexander has joined two professors from the University of Central Florida as “country experts” on the U.S. for a WHO initiative called the Health System Response Monitor, which collects data on how countries around the world are responding to COVID-19.

“This is meant to be a tool for policymakers and health systems leadership to not only inform their decisions in the [present] but also to look back in the future and understand ‘What were some of the best strategies for containing, for testing or for mitigating the spread?’” Alexander said. “‘As we’re reopening economies and reopening businesses, schools and other public places, what are some of those capabilities that countries will need to respond to pandemics in the future as well to respond to COVID-19?’”

This is meant to be a tool for policymakers and health systems leadership to not only inform their decisions in the [present] but also to look back in the future and understand ‘What were some of the best strategies for containing, for testing or for mitigating the spread?’

Alexander has been working on health policy research since his undergraduate days at VCU. Combining his interests in medicine, business and policy, Alexander worked as a research assistant studying Medicaid expansion and its impact on substance use disorder treatment in Virginia on a team led by Andrew Barnes, Ph.D., an associate professor in the School of Medicine’s Department of Health Behavior and Policy.

A graduate of the VCU Honors College, Alexander earned his B.S. in biology from the College of Humanities and Sciences and completed minors in chemistry and business. After graduating from VCU in 2018, Alexander continued to develop his interest in health policy while completing an internship at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and working with the Margolis Center for Health Policy at Duke University.

When he returned to VCU to enroll in the School of Medicine’s M.D. program last fall, he reached out to Barnes to continue his involvement in state health policy research as a graduate research assistant.

“A lot of the work, in terms of health care reform, is done at the state level,” said Alexander, who also serves as a student trustee for the Richmond Academy of Medicine. “Obviously we’re in Richmond, and we’re so close to the General Assembly and the governor’s office, so it’s a blessing to be at VCU and to be involved in some of the Medicaid expansion research that is going on.”

‘An incredible opportunity’

When the WHO put out a global call for country experts to the Health Systems and Policy Monitor network, which Barnes is part of, Barnes recognized the opportunity as a perfect fit for Alexander, knowing his research capabilities in health policy.

“It’s an incredible opportunity for a medical student in general, and Mathew deserves it,” said Barnes about Alexander’s involvement with the project as a country expert. “He has worked hard with me for a number of years and … it has really paid off. He does [health policy research] because he’s passionate about it.”

It’s an incredible opportunity for a medical student in general, and Mathew deserves it. He does [health policy research] because he’s passionate about it.

Alexander worked to develop the U.S. Health System Response Monitor report with Lynn Unruh, Ph.D., a registered nurse and health economist, and Andriy Koval, Ph.D., an assistant professor and data scientist, both with the Department of Health Management and Informatics at UCF.

Barnes had previously co-authored a book with Unruh and connected her with Alexander for the WHO project, which Barnes said will help researchers track how different countries’ policies relate to the spread or mitigation of a pandemic.

“[This report is] going to help guide the World Health Organization’s recommendations for global responses to the pandemic,” Barnes said. “Mathew has really helped contribute to a project that is going to be very useful for the foreseeable future as we all try and understand ‘How do we use the policy tools at hand to try and minimize the damage from this global pandemic?’”

The WHO report provides information on a country’s performance on six topics — including preventing transmission and paying for health services — from a federal government perspective. The North American COVID-19 Policy Response Monitor published the full WHO report compiled by Alexander, Koval and Unruh in early May. Alexander and his colleagues also released in May a summary reflecting on the early findings from the U.S. response for a blog series in the journal Health Economics, Policy and Law.

Providing historical context

These COVID-19 reports give context to the story behind the numbers, Alexander said.

“A lot of the talk right now has been about case counts and death counts and comparing those [between] countries,” Alexander said. “But one of the reasons why this work is really important is because it gives you a better understanding of why countries may have acted the way that they did and different factors that influenced their decisions.”

Peter Buckley, M.D., dean of the School of Medicine, interim CEO of VCU Health System and interim senior vice president of VCU Health Sciences, applauded Alexander’s initiative to pursue research opportunities, calling it an example of the go-getter nature of VCU’s health sciences students.

“Mathew’s dedication to solving health challenges through research is clear both from his work on state health policy with Dr. Barnes’ team at VCU and on global health matters with the World Health Organization,” Buckley said. “Throughout history, leaders have looked to the past for answers about present health challenges. Mathew’s research stands to make a real impact, providing the historical context to guide world leaders facing decisions about a disease outbreak for years to come.”

Alexander has learned a great deal from the project so far. He will continue to provide reports to the WHO on an ongoing basis and said he is glad to have a chance to inform policymakers and the public and to contribute to the global efforts to contain COVID-19, “a crisis that has affected so many people.” But he said this project, and all of his projects in health policy, drive him in his training, not just as a researcher but as a student on the path to becoming a doctor.

“As a future physician, I’m not interested in only just providing good care for my patients but also in addressing some of these underlying issues — whether that’s access to health care or social drivers of health, such as food insecurity or transportation,” Alexander said. “I’m really working to provide whole-person care. That’s something that I learned at VCU, and that’s something I carried through my gap year. It’s something that I’ll be able to implement as I grow as a clinician-in-training and hopefully as a future physician.”