Conversation with Tony Ma, M.S., Benten Technologies, Inc.

Working with Communities to Improve Maternal and Child Health

NIMHD’s Conversations with Researchers Innovating to Promote Health Equity

May is Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. As we celebrate the significant contributions to America—from its history through present day—by people who represent Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities, we recognize researchers who are promoting health equity through their work funded through NIMHD’s Small Business Innovation Research/Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) Program.

Meet Tony Ma, M.S., principal investigator in minority health and health disparities research.

Tony Ma, M.S.

Tony Ma is a social entrepreneur with a passion for health equity, a passion instilled in him as a child of war during the Vietnam era. His drive to navigate the healthcare system and address health equity issues comes from his childhood adversity as well. His mother's close encounter with death due to undiagnosed hypertension and an eclamptic seizure during delivery, coupled with his own war experiences as a refugee almost dying at sea and spending seven months in a refugee camp, have honed his drive to become a leader and innovator in the field of health disparities.

Throughout his career, Mr. Ma has led multiple national and international organizations, shepherding myriad products through validation, scaling, and growth. Among his many successful endeavors, Mr. Ma has transformed the State of Maryland’s IT infrastructure to Agile delivery for its $1 billion IT portfolio, modernizing systems to support Medicaid/Medicare recipients; and has grown the Veterans Health Administration's MyHealtheVet portal, a personal health information (PHI) record portal for veterans, from concept to over 800,000 users within 1 year.

As a researcher of information technology solutions aimed at addressing health disparities, Mr. Ma has overseen multiple projects. His NIMHD SBIR grants focus on interventions to support breast feeding with minority women, reduce severity of post-partum depression among African American and Black women, and address obesity in early childhood.

Mr. Ma earned his Master’s degree in telecommunications and computers from George Washington University and his Bachelor’s degree in systems engineering from the University of Virginia.

Q&A with Tony Ma

What is your research goal, purpose and aim?
My audacious goal is to impact a billion lives globally by creating translational digital health and digital therapeutic solutions that democratize health care. As an immigrant and global citizen, I believe in acting locally but thinking globally and that research should be done by the people, with the people, and for the people we serve.

My aims are shaped by three pillars: time, technology, and education. The use of time isn’t equitable between different populations. This especially impacts socioeconomically disadvantaged minority communities for whom time is often restricted due to structural barriers, such as lack of access to transportation, health care, and childcare. Technology, however, has the potential to improve healthcare access and health services delivery. It’s also important to inform consumers about their health and health choices without overwhelming them.

Maybe I’ve consumed too many science fiction books and movies, but I envision a not-too-distant future utopia (50 to 100 years out), when newborn humans will be assigned an Artificial Intelligence (AI) Assistant that transcends multiple modes (i.e., phone, robot, smart speaker) to help them live their best lives while also allowing freedom of choice. Being technology agnostic, my research aim is to improve the accessibility and affordability of health care by lowering costs using technology tools such as mobile, AI, and other context appropriate tools.

These past ten years, I’ve had the privilege and honor of working with great people in the field who share similar values.

How is your work advancing the science and health of populations experiencing disparities? Are you seeing specific changes in particular communities or groups?
With my research on digital health, I’ve collaborated with diverse and multi-disciplinary team members from Thomas Jefferson University, Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College (JNMC), ChristianaCare, RTI International, Philadelphia WIC, Cleveland Clinic, MedStar Health, and University Hospitals. These collaborations have focused specifically on maternal and child health, including areas such as breastfeeding, substance use disorder, and postpartum depression. My work is advancing the field of maternal and child health in the United States and internationally.

One area of research I’m advancing within maternal and child health is breastfeeding. Thanks to generous funding from multiple NIH institutes and centers, including NIMHD, my collaborators and I have developed transformative digital health solutions to promote exclusive breastfeeding for Hispanic/Latina, African American, and Indian mothers.

In a recently conducted study in India, my collaborators and I demonstrated the impact of peer counselors providing in-home support for exclusive breastfeeding. A mobile app with an educational program for peer counselors greatly enhanced their ability to help new mothers with their breastfeeding journeys. Not only did the mothers' knowledge increase, but exclusive breastfeeding rates at 6 months also skyrocketed.

Our research also explores the use of contingency management to change behaviors, such as attendance in treatment and well-baby visits for pregnant and parenting people with opioid use disorder.

My work with our collaborators also investigates models for leveraging community health care workers for improving healthcare access in medically underserved areas. While this model has seen success in many countries, it’s just beginning to gain traction in the United States. This is where digital solutions come in. By leveraging technology, we can shift important services, such as prevention, screening, and referral, to the communities where they are most needed. Digital solutions can connect community healthcare workers with patients, extending a warm digital handshake and linking community members to care.

From the research you are doing, what has surprised you about the discoveries from your work and its impact?
I’m constantly amazed by the power of community involvement in the co-creation process. My co-founder, Katie Chang, and I share a fundamental belief in the importance of humility in research. This approach is encapsulated in a saying attributed to Confucius: “In a room of three people, we can always learn something from one other person in the room.” This has led us to groundbreaking insights, particularly in the realm of maternal and child health, including breastfeeding.

Through qualitative research, we’ve learned that cultural tailoring and personalization are essential when it comes to supporting minority groups. Our studies have revealed there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of increasing exclusive breastfeeding rates. Instead, by segmenting into subgroups, we’ve boosted relevance, engagement, satisfaction, and adherence.

One example of an eye-opening experience came during a focus group session with women from the general population and women in substance use treatment. As we listened to their experiences and concerns, we realized domestic violence was a critical issue that wasn’t addressed in our research. Moving forward, we plan to incorporate questions about domestic violence in future iterations of our app designed to help women between the ages of 18 and 44 receive screening and treatment for substance use disorder. The women also shared their fears about privacy and the risk of their partners seeing their phones. It reminded us of the importance of providing a secure and confidential solution for people to share their lived experiences.

It's incredible how co-creation and qualitative research can transform the digital health space. As I continue to work closely with communities, I’m excited to see what other insights and breakthroughs await us.

What inspired you to become a researcher in minority health and health disparities?
I was born into the chaos and horror of the Vietnam War. My mother's undiagnosed hypertension during pregnancy led to an eclamptic seizure during delivery, nearly killing her and me. These incidences made me acutely aware of the importance of good maternal and child health.

When I was a young boy, I spent countless times in a bunker during shelling, eventually escaping Vietnam as a boat refugee. In the refugee camp where I lived for seven months, around 30% of children my age died.

In America, my parents faced new challenges. These included limited access to transportation, language barriers, lack of health insurance, discriminatory housing, racism, and socioeconomic disadvantage. I suffered from a variety of health issues, including tuberculosis, but these obstacles made it difficult for my parents to navigate the healthcare system and get me the necessary care.

I began my career as an engineer at a startup called UUNet. Then I transitioned into management consulting, which allowed me to travel the globe and witness firsthand the discrepancy in access and quality of health care between different groups of people.

The vivid memories of my adverse childhood experiences coupled with my global travels as an adult left an indelible mark on me, fueling my passion for promoting health equity globally. They also opened my eyes to the brokenness of the U.S. healthcare system. I realized the significant need to improve minority health, reduce health disparities, and promote health equity.

How do we encourage the next generation of scientists?
As a society, we need to promote STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, revolutionize the way we deliver education, and provide opportunities and encourage young minds to explore their areas of interest.

The next generation of scientists needs to understand the importance of their unique contributions and perspective for solving complex problems in healthcare and other areas.

To achieve this, we must create a culture that values intellectual curiosity and continuous learning. This involves providing research and job opportunities for students at all levels, from elementary school to early-stage investigators. We need to empower students to bring new ideas and perspectives to the table.

From elementary to high school, science needs to be made more hands-on, fun, and engaging. I believe the Montessori approach and lab-based learning can help students gain practical experience in science and research, making science more accessible and exciting.

For college students and early-stage investigators, providing opportunities to learn from other scientists in their field is crucial. Access to mentors and funding helps create a successful pathway to a rewarding career in research. The scientific community must provide an inclusive environment that values diverse thinking and contributions.

What do you envision as the future of minority health and health disparities research?
The future starts with fostering diversity among research scientists. I’ve witnessed the importance of inclusivity and diverse thinking in this field. We need proper support and funding to enable a more diverse group of scientists to succeed. This includes addressing the disparities in access to education, mentorship, and resources that have historically made it more difficult for underrepresented groups to pursue research careers.

Health disparities research must be conducted with the community, not just for the community. This means increasing participatory and co-creation processes to ensure that research is inclusive and culturally sensitive, addressing the specific needs of the communities being studied. We must improve our qualitative research methods and drill down to small segments of minority populations, rather than grouping them into broad categories.

In the field of behavioral science, for example, we must recognize the diversity of experiences and cultures that shape individual behaviors and attitudes. This requires a deep understanding of the unique challenges minority communities face and collaborating with them to develop effective interventions.

Finally, the research must be for the people, meaning that the communities being studied should receive direct benefits from the research beyond target outcomes. This could include increased access to health care, improved health literacy, or greater community engagement in the research process itself.

Only by working together can we significantly improve the health outcomes of all members of our society.

Page updated May 1, 2023