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University of Maryland to study health disparities with $5.9 mil. NIH grant

Sandra Quinn and Stephen Thomas have seen too many people die prematurely. And most of the deaths had a common link: They were from minority populations.

The university researchers saw black and Latino Americans suffering from hypertension, asthma and other diseases more often than they should have. So rather than accepting the status quo, the duo set out to reduce the health disparities between minorities and Caucasians and improve the state’s health overall.

 

Quinn and Thomas helped launch the Maryland Center for Health Equity (M-CHE) — based out of the public health school — where they serve as its senior associate director and director, respectively. Now, the center has received a $5.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to tackle disparities that leave black Americans at greater risk of dying from cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

The five-year grant will enable the center to conduct a complex set of research studies, educate and train researchers and engage the community to collect data and reach out to affected minority populations. These efforts will address cultural and environmental influences to reduce racial disparities, said Quinn, who is also an associate dean of public health initiatives.

“For the very first time, we are adding issues of racism more exclusively than typically used in health research,” she said. “Health disparities are not simply a matter of individuals, but are also a matter of the environmental and historical context in which we live.”

Recruited from the University of Pittsburgh in 2010, Quinn and Thomas — a university professor — brought nearly a decade of health disparity research with them to launch the center.

Researchers will conduct three main studies to evaluate the minority groups. The first will focus on developing techniques to increase physical activity among black women, which they will carry out by using social networks in barber shops and beauty salons. The data gathered will then be used to determine how diseases such as obesity and diabetes can be prevented. Other research will address cultural factors that affect vaccine disparities among black Americans, fueled by many minority individuals’ distrust of medicine.

The third study, in partnership with the Joint Center of Political and Economic Studies, will use interviews to determine the effects of the Affordable Care Act on black men, who may not understand how to navigate the health system, the researchers said. Since these research tactics will look at health disparities in a way that directly involves the community, researchers hope they will develop more effective solutions to reduce disparities, Thomas said.

“This is not just about health and diseases,” he said. “This research is about the way that different minorities experience life in American society. The only way to grasp that factor is to get out of the ivory tower and go in and engage the community.”

Because of the wide-encompassing social and economic aspects of the study, the research will also involve faculty and staff from the behavioral and social sciences department, the business school and other departments across the campus.

“There is not one discipline that can solve this problem,” Thomas said. “We have to bring the available resources in from the university to laser in on health disparities.”

Even though the project focuses on black Americans, many other minority groups are greatly impaired by health disparities, Quinn said. For example, the proportion of diagnosed high cholesterol in the country’s young adult Asian population (ages 18 to 44) is 1.3 times higher than in the young adult Caucasian population. Additionally, the rate of new HIV cases for Latino Americans was 3.6 times higher than that of Caucasians in 2009.

“There are many disturbing statistics that display that there are issues with the health care of all minorities,” she said. “African-American women are less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer, but are more likely to die from it.”

And these statistics are pertinent to Prince George’s County, which is home to the most prosperous black community in the nation, Thomas said. He and other researchers hope the study will pinpoint why black Americans who have the necessary health resources available to them still suffer from health disparities.

Freshman Ariana Castro-Acuna, who is Latina, said these studies are important because they will benefit minority communities at the university.

“If African-Americans and Latinos are the ones that more likely contract diseases, then that means that a percentage of students fit into that category,” the journalism major said. “This research needs to be done to prevent people in the future from getting sick.”

The center has also worked on projects that work to build trust between minorities and researchers. These also address the issue of minorities not partaking in studies or research because of the history of racism in the health field.

Through holding monthly Collegium of Scholars events, the center also hosts multiple speakers on topics surrounding health equity. As part of the series, an event on March 13 called “Substance Use and Mental Health Disparities among Sexual Minority Youth” will feature guest speaker Michael Marshal, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

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