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Investigators Earn $1.3 Million Grant for Health Disparities Research


UTHSC has been awarded a $1.3 million grant to study health disparities in Memphis and Shelby County by the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NCMHD), a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) has been awarded a $1.3 million grant to study health disparities in Memphis and Shelby County by the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NCMHD), a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NIH describes health disparities as differences in the burden of diseases, morbidity, mortality rates and other adverse health outcomes affecting specific populations.

UTHSC will examine health disparities in connection to race and other social determinants of health. The studies will be conducted through the Consortium for Health Education, Economic Empowerment and Research (CHEER), a UTHSC-led collaborative initiative conducting exploratory health disparities research. CHEER partners include UTHSC, the Memphis and Shelby County Health Department, the Memphis Housing Authority, LeMoyne-Owen College and First Baptist Church Lauderdale with its independent affiliate, Mustard Seed, Inc., a non-profit organization seeking to improve the livelihood of citizens. The collaborators are essential for encouraging healthier lifestyles among citizens of all racial and ethnic backgrounds in the Mid-South area.

“In our city and state, minorities perform far worse than others when diagnosed with diabetes, heart disease, stroke, obesity, HIV/AIDS and other health issues,” said Shelley White-Means, PhD, health economics professor at UTHSC and founder of CHEER. With more than 25 years of research emphasis on health disparities among minorities, women, the elderly and other vulnerable populations, Dr. White-Means has renewed optimism about improving these conditions, not only because of the grant, but also due to recent deliberations on health disparities within the health care reform debate. “The Institute of Medicine and other health care organizations are now discussing that stress, racism and social factors not typically associated with health frequently influence health outcomes. We are grateful to NCMHD for the grant and eager to begin designing interventions,” said Dr. White-Means.

CHEER has a four-tier mission of conducting demographic research on health outcomes; designing interventions for reducing or eliminating disparities; developing opportunities for health care providers and community leaders to collaborate, and assisting health care and community leaders in distributing information on health disparities and related interventions. To examine health conditions in particular populations, CHEER will perform analyses in assigned zip codes and produce geographic information systems maps illustrating the health and demographic data.

Kennard Brown, JD, MPA, PhD, executive vice chancellor and chief of staff for UTHSC, stated, “The NCMHD grant will increase the CHEER research component, moving it closer to becoming a comprehensive center of excellence on health disparities, engaging in extensive research, collaborations, training and administration. Our research infrastructure will assist CHEER through numerous studies in progress related to minority health — cancer, diabetes, hypertension, obesity and HIV/AIDS are only a few of the projects.” Dr. Brown added that while UTHSC aims to become a leading resource on health disparities with institutions such as the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Morehouse School of Medicine, the university will not lose sight of the main goal — to reduce or eliminate gaps in health outcomes, both locally and beyond.

Initially, the NCMHD grant will be used to study health disparities in the 38126 zip code. The area has a population of 8,104 citizens in which 98 percent are African-American and the area ranks among the highest in Memphis and Shelby County in hospitalization rates for chronic disease, sexually transmitted diseases and crime. This zip code also has the lowest median income and education levels of any part of the city — 60 percent are below poverty level, 45 percent hold a high school diploma or some college and only 4.5 percent hold a bachelor’s degree or higher.

CHEER will use written surveys to collect data from the 38126 citizenry. Factors impacting health will be analyzed such as environmental exposure, genetics, health care access and behavioral lifestyles that reflect eating and cooking habits, sleep practices, exercise patterns and racial polarization. Also, social circumstances will be examined in regard to employment conditions, housing environments, health care infrastructure, educational levels and experiences with racism. Specific questions will involve where they are employed, the number of persons living in a household, the quality of their housing, their access to food stores carrying fresh produce, their hot water access and other factors that influence health. First Baptist Church Lauderdale, a CHEER partner, is one of more than 20 churches in the 38126 zip code and will be instrumental in leading the ministerial effort to gather information.

In 2010, CHEER will conduct a community health summit to educate the community on specific health disparities and identify methods for intervention. The summit will examine disturbing statistics such as that African-Americans in Tennessee are 1.5 times more likely to die of heart disease than Caucasians. In addition, the state’s African-American women are 12 times more likely to die from HIV/AIDS than its Caucasian females. The meeting will also address disparities for Memphis including that the rate of heart disease is at 27.6 percent compared to 6 percent in the United States; the diabetes rate is at 11.5 percent as opposed to 6 percent nationally, and Memphis is ranked first in the country in obesity.

The $1.3 million NCMHD grant will be spread over two years, but Dr. White-Means is planning now to apply for a five-year funding period. For further details about CHEER, visit www.uthsc.edu/CHEER. CHEER will begin producing a quarterly newsletter, the CHEERLEADER, which will be accessible on the CHEER web site during the second quarter of 2010.

Established by the U.S. Congress in 2000, the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities promotes minority health, as well as leads, coordinates, supports and assesses NIH efforts to reduce and ultimately eliminate health disparities. The NCMHD works for minority and other medically underserved communities both independently and in partnership with other NIH institutes and centers. The organization also collaborates with other federal agencies and grassroots organizations to (1) conduct and support basic, clinical, social and behavioral health disparities research; (2) promote infrastructure development and training; (3) foster emerging programs; (4) disseminate information, and (5) reach out to minority and other communities experiencing health disparities.