Ruth Serrano, MD, a physician-scientist and assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Disease in the Department of Medicine in the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long School of Medicine at UT Health San Antonio, has a passion and drive to help her patients recover from the profound effects of infectious diseases, including HIV and most recently, COVID-19. Her work has taken her around the world to serve racial and ethnic minorities as well as those in underserved communities.
Born and raised in Venezuela by a family from neighboring Colombia, Dr. Serrano and her family relocated several times throughout her childhood in search of career opportunities. Serrano fondly recalls her mother, a physicist, who taught her love and admiration for the basic sciences. “My career choice was a calling to link the basic sciences with my passion to help others,” Dr. Serrano shared. “I became interested in infectious diseases after my rural work in a remote community in Monagas, Venezuela, where I took care of many patients with malaria, dengue fever and myiasis.” Serrano earned her medical degree from the Universidad de Carabobo in Valencia, Venezuela, in 2009.
Dr. Serrano joined UT Health San Antonio as an internal medicine intern in 2014, as well as the residency program in 2016. She was then named to a clinical fellowship in infectious diseases in 2018 and was subsequently appointed an assistant professor/clinical in July 2018. When asked what attracted her to UT Health San Antonio, Serrano shared, “When I first arrived for my internship interview, the nursing and administrative staff impressed me. Plus, the strong Hispanic influence, cultural diversity, along with the possibility to make a true impact in the community, especially in HIV care and prevention, was my biggest motivation to stay as a faculty member.”
Research has always been of paramount importance for Dr. Serrano since her training years when she presented abstracts at multiple nationwide conferences in internal medicine and infectious diseases. More recently, Serrano participated in groundbreaking clinical trials focused on the development of prevention and treatment strategies for COVID-19 under the guidance of Thomas Patterson, MD, chair of the Department of Infectious Diseases, who also leads COVID-19 infectious disease care for University Health, and is the principal investigator of the PREVAIL South Texas trial. She also worked with Barbara Taylor, MD, MS, who serves as a co-principal investigator for the PREVAIL trial. Dr. Taylor is an associate professor of medicine and assistant dean for the MD/MPH program at the Long School of Medicine. She is an infectious disease clinician and researcher at University Health.
“This research was a key response for our community early in the pandemic when the only option to acquire valuable antivirals for treatment of COVID-19 was through enrollment of patients in clinical trials,” Dr. Serrano shared. “I was able to gain an in-depth understanding of the processes and the barriers involved in the development of quality research. I have had the pleasure to work with and learn from fantastic team members at all levels of training, from medical students and volunteers to national experts in the subject.”
Dr. Serrano was invited to participate in TACKLE (Targeted Access to Community Knowledge, Linkage to treatment Education) HIV/HCV (Hepatitis C Virus) in people of color, which ran from September 2017 to September 2021, and was a multifaceted program to improve the prevention, care, treatment and cure of HCV in people living with HIV (PLWH) in South Texas. The program focused primarily on low-income, underinsured or uninsured racial and ethnic minorities.
Invited to participate in TACKLE when she became the medical director of the Alamo Area Resource Center (AARC) in 2018, the clinic serves as a direct-care provider to a large, uninsured and underinsured population of PLWH who are at risk of acquiring HIV in San Antonio. “This project was a tremendous opportunity to improve care for my co-infected patients, in a population that is known to meet significant obstacles given expected costs associated with the diagnostic processes and the treatment options,” Serrano shared.
Before joining the TACKLE team, Dr. Serrano had encountered significant difficulties attempting to secure treatment for uninsured co-infected patients such as the inability to obtain diagnostic imaging, and medications not covered by insurance as well as difficulties reaching patients due to competing priorities, as this patient population has significant burdens, including socio-economic stressors.
TACKLE provided the AARC with a wide range of tools, which included a patient navigator who was involved in maintaining close communication with patients regarding medication adherence and barriers, appointment reminders and risk reduction strategies, tools for the diagnosis of steatosis/fibrosis via fibroscan, which was to date one of the most influential steps the current clinic processes for all patients with liver disease.
TACKLE also provided the opportunity for the physicians and clinical staff to present patient scenarios to a multidisciplinary team that includes a pharmacist, mental health practitioners, and hepatology and infectious disease specialists via telementoring ECHO sessions. “Many of the patients I treated and cured of their HCV via TACKLE would not have been able to access a hepatology consultation,” Dr. Serrano shared. “I was also able to participate in the care of many patients living in remote areas of rural Texas who would not have otherwise had the opportunity to see an infectious disease provider.”
TACKLE continues to be quite influential in Dr. Serrano’s practice, to date, and she looks forward to the upcoming release of the HELP (HIV/HCV Education and Learning for Providers) app, which will serve as a valuable tool for navigation of treatment options, required diagnostics and strategies for medication coverage for co-infected patients.
Dr. Serrano recently took over as clinical director of the South-Central AIDS Education and Training Center (SCAETC) with guidance from Waridibo “Wari” Allison, MD, PhD, former associate professor of infectious diseases in the Long School of Medicine and current vice president of health policy at the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth.
The SCAETC is a network of HIV experts who provide locally-based, targeted education, clinical consultation and technical assistance to healthcare professionals and healthcare organizations, to improve access to quality care for people living with HIV. UT Health San Antonio is a local partner site whose efforts are led by the University of New Mexico Health Science Center’s ECHO Institute. UT Health San Antonio is one of 11 local sites and provides services in five states.
“Dr. Allison has guided me every step of this transition, which has certainly pushed me beyond my comfort zone,” Dr. Serrano shared. This project has opened my horizons not only as an infectious disease provider but as a leader in the academic field and the community.”
To learn more about the work of the SCAETC at UT Health San Antonio, click here.