Saving Lives One Equation at a Time
By Justin Wier and Lauren Foote
Imelda Flores-Vazquez, a program specialist with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, spoke to a crowded room of students and faculty in the Lincoln Building on Friday about using math to shape public policy.
She drew on her experiences to inform students about opportunities performing policy jobs for the government. For these jobs, Flores-Vazquez said, you need to possess knowledge not only in math and statistics, but also in a field like economics, biology, psychology, sociology or public health.
Flores-Vazquez has a background in economics, and in her work for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission she creates mathematical models to determine what changes in the state’s Medicaid policy will cost.
She used the decision to cover a new diabetes drug as an example.
“They come to me and say, ‘Imelda, how much is it going to cost to cover this new drug?’ and then I go do my magic — that’s what they call it, I don’t call it that — and I say $10 million,” Flores-Vazquez said.
She said she also receives requests from the press when they are covering proposed legislation, and from lobbyists who are curious to see what specific policies they are interested in passing would cost.
She presented work she has done involving a disease called necrotizing enterocolitis that occurs in premature infants and often results in death.
“Doctors from San Antonio said, ‘We see these kids suffer. It’s very bad, but we know how to prevent this,’” Flores-Vazquez said.
They told her providing the children with maternal milk rather than formula would result in 80 percent fewer cases of necrotizing enterocolitis. However, they are born before their mothers’ bodies create the hormones that cause them to produce milk, so they need to obtain it from breast milk banks.
Flores-Vazquez walked the students through the process of calculating the savings from treating fewer cases of the disease and creating a model to gauge the amount of milk babies will consume in order to determine the costs associated with the policy.
Alicia Prieto-Langarica, assistant professor in the department of mathematics and statistics, brought Flores-Vazquez to campus as part of the university’s Hispanic Heritage Month. She said it’s important that students hear about things they can do with mathematics outside the classroom.
“Sometimes they listen to me as a professor — who loves her research — but [my research] does not have an immediate impact. Vazquez’s research does have an immediate impact,” Prieto-Langarica said. “It’s something students can relate to.”
Emily Hoopes, a junior majoring in integrated math education and applied mathematics, said she was impressed by the presentation.
“I liked that it was on actual problems that were being solved,” Hoopes said. “I loved how math could relate to real life.”