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Fellow Spotlight: Sean Sylvia

Sean Sylvia joined the Carolina Population Center as a Faculty Fellow in 2019.

Sean Sylvia

Department: Health Policy and Management

Hometown: Prattville, AL

Tell us what projects you’re currently working on.

I’m currently working on a few different projects, mostly in China. One set of projects involves using unannounced standardized patients (SP) — mystery shoppers to healthcare providers — to evaluate the quality of care in different contexts. Collaborators in China and I are using SPs to study the market for “direct to consumer” telemedicine, where internet companies and public and private hospitals are providing medical advice online.

I’ve also just received a grant (with M. Kumi Smith, who was formerly at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is now at the University of Minnesota) to use SPs to measure HIV stigma in urban clinics and hospitals.

In other projects, collaborators and I are evaluating interventions to improve early childhood health and development. We are soon launching an randomized controlled trial to evaluate a community health worker-delivered maternal and child health intervention that we’ve spent the past couple of years developing. In addition to these projects in China, I’m involved in one experiment here in North Carolina (with Marisa Domino) to test approaches based on insights from behavioral economics to recruit providers to training for medicine assisted treatment (MAT) for opioid use disorder.

These projects excite me in different ways. I’m excited about the projects using SPs because this method gives us a way to directly observe how patients are actually treated, which has been difficult with other approaches. It also offers a nice way to design experiments testing hypotheses about provider behavior. The study of telemedicine markets is particularly exciting to me because this form of healthcare is growing rapidly in a number of countries and, beyond potentially expanding access to care, could change the market for healthcare in some important ways. The ECD and MAT projects mainly excite me because they have potential to directly inform policy at an important time. China, for instance, is in the process of developing a national ECD strategy and our work provides evidence on interventions that are being considered as part of this.

What are you looking forward to at CPC?

I’m looking forward to being part of the CPC community and interacting with other CPCers doing global research.

Could you tell us a little about your path to CPC?

As a social scientist working in China, I’ve known about CPC for a long time from the China Health and Nutrition Survey (CHNS). Until recently, the CHNS was the only publicly-available longitudinal survey of households in China, so nearly everyone in the field has encountered or worked with the data at some point. I actually wrote my first paper using the CHNS as a graduate student (the paper was no good and never published). I started coming to CPC seminars as soon as I joined the faculty at UNC two years ago.

What do you spend your time doing outside of work?

Spending time with the family. My wife, Na, and I have two children, Zoe (8) and Owen (6).

Could you share something you read recently that you really enjoy?

The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds, by Michael Lewis