Moumita Dasgupta with her research team.

Patients who depend on public transit often miss their medical appointments. The price of those missed appointments is steep, both for hospitals and for patients’ health. Until recently, there was no comprehensive way to tackle this problem, because there were too many variables and too little data.

Enter Moumita Dasgupta, an experimental physicist with a knack for analyzing complex systems. By day, Dasgupta is a teaching fellow who conducts all of the introductory lab-based classes in Amherst’s physics department. In her spare time, she works on her passion project: improving low-income patients’ access to health care by addressing their transportation needs.

Moumita Dasgupta's research team

Now the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has funded a $30,000 grant proposal that Dasgupta wrote in partnership with the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority (PVTA). The funds will allow Dasgupta and a team of collaborators to examine transportation barriers for approximately 40,000 low-income Medicaid beneficiaries in western Massachusetts.

Before applying for the FTA grant, Dasgupta spent two years building connections among key stakeholders, including transportation service planners; health care personnel; health care researchers; insurance company reps; and local advocates for children, the disabled and the elderly. It took a year to get representatives from PVTA, Baystate Health, Health New England, the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission and multiple social service agencies into one room for their first meeting. Dasgupta attributes her persistence to her training as a physicist. “Systems are very complicated,” she says, smiling.

Moumita Dasgupta's research team working together

Dasgupta’s research team includes her two undergraduate assistants, hired with funding from Amherst’s Gregory S. Call Academic Internship Program. Saharsha Karki ’18 and Bonnie Lin ’19 help Dasgupta analyze existing western Massachusetts transit data, design metrics for collecting new data and administer surveys. 

Karki first learned about Dasgupta’s project when he signed up for an Interterm 2017 Design Thinking Challenge sponsored by the Center for Community Engagement. He says that his research assistantship fits nicely with his double major in computer science and history, because it “allows me to engage with both the technical and the human.” He adds, “I’ve learned a lot about the community around Amherst.”

Lin, who came to college with an interest in health care, credits Dasgupta’s project with making her more aware of the “social determinants of health.” She hopes to raise insurance companies’ awareness of the health care transportation gap. “One of the biggest things that I’ve learned from this project,” says Lin, “is that we have to focus on a specific location and understand the needs of the location.”

Moumita Dasgupta's research team

Amherst is not the only location where Dasgupta has grappled with the problem of missed medical appointments. In 2015, as a newly minted physics Ph.D. at Clark University, she led the Worcester community group that imagined Smart Transit for Healthcare, a web interface that allows schedulers and patients set up medical appointments to coincide with appropriate transportation options. The prototype software, developed in cooperation with Cambridge Systematics, is deliberately open-source and scalable, so any city can afford to adapt it.

“I am not selling any product,” says Dasgupta. “When you talk to families who are extremely low-income or whose kids are ill, you don’t want to make money off them. You just want to help. I have been lucky to meet a lot of people who feel the same way.”

Smart Transit for Healthcare has received federal grants for the Worcester pilot program, and two similar pilots in Florida and Pennsylvania. It may eventually be introduced in western Massachusetts. “The goal is to make a difference in the lives of underserved populations,” says Dasgupta. “Patients will benefit from more flexible transportation, and medical providers will see cost savings and improved patient health.”