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UI Researchers Use Mobile App To Get Health Information To Iowa's Migrant Workers

Around 7,000 migrants workers come to Iowa each year to work on farms.
Kelcy Gatson
Around 7,000 migrants workers, mostly from Mexico, come to Iowa each year to work on farms.

University of Iowa researchers are working with a local non-profit to figure out the best way to gather and communicate health information to the state’s migrant workers.

About 7,000 seasonal migrant workers come to Iowa every year. They’re mostly from Mexico and live near the Texas border.

University of Iowa researchers are working with Proteus, a federally qualified mobile health center, and are using a mobile app to collect data from workers on their mental health, chronic conditions and attitudes about the COVID-19 vaccine.

Claudia Corwin, a professor at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, said these workers can be hard to reach because they’re so mobile and most don’t speak English.

"Many of these workers, Spanish is even the secondary language," she said. "Many workers have indigenous languages that they speak primarily.”

Corwin said mobile workers aren't looking to the same news and health resources as the general population.

“They're not tapped into the same institutions that we are," she said. They don't have primary care doctors that can provide annual or semi annual advice. They're not offered the opportunities to engage with surveys that they may be enrolled in through their primary care providers.”

Corwin said they’re using a mobile app to send out surveys with one or two questions about mental health, chronic conditions and even the COVID-19 vaccine.

She said roughly 160 workers have answered questions about the vaccine, and many are still deliberating getting it.

"That shows that most migrant seasonal farmworkers want the vaccine. But it also shows that most farm workers are worried about the vaccine, and that's natural," she said.

She said their reasons for hesitating are tied to health and safety, like concerns the vaccine was developed "too quickly" or that it could have long term effects, not their immigration status.

Corwin said some migrants have H-2A work visas, which are for temporary agricultural workers, while others are undocumented.

Corwin said they're working on collecting data on mental health over the agricultural season by texting the same question to see if there are trends.

"What the worker will do is they will simply text back a single word response, they'll have a choice," she said. "And then in the background, the app will be collecting and organizing all the data."

But Corwin said the main focus of the study is not the health data they collect, but to see how well it works.

"The primary goal of this pilot study is to see if it's feasible," she said. "Is it feasible, to reach workers to request information from these workers, and eventually to deliver messages?”

Natalie Krebs is IPR's Health Reporter