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UTHSC Team Receives $3 Million To Test Health IT Intervention Targeting Disadvantaged Groups

Karen Johnson MD, MPH, Endowed Professor of Women’s Health and chair of Preventive Medicine at UTHSC

A UTHSC research team has been awarded $3.2 million from the National Cancer Institute to test the use of health information technology in managing obesity among disadvantaged groups.

Karen Johnson MD, MPH, Endowed Professor of Women’s Health and chair of Preventive Medicine at UTHSC, is leading a clinical trial to determine whether an existing weight-loss intervention method can be modified and delivered via primary care IT to target high-risk, underserved populations. The trial is focused on the Delta region, which has some of the highest rates of obesity in the nation.

Obesity is an important risk factor for many serious diseases including many types of cancer. In the United States, it disproportionally affects low-income, rural, and minority populations. These underserved groups are also at increased risk for developing and dying from cancer.

Dr. Johnson, who also codirects the Tennessee Clinical and Translational Science Institute, has already had success showing the effectiveness of intensive lifestyle intervention programs. She is principal investigator for the Memphis site of the ongoing Look AHEAD (Action for Health in Diabetes) study funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive Kidney Diseases. Look AHEAD is a large clinical trial that has shown long-term, sustained weight loss is possible for people with diabetes through a multicomponent intervention combining diet, physical activity, and behavior modification.

Dr. Johnson now wants to tailor the Look AHEAD weight loss strategies to the underserved using health IT embedded in primary care practice, such as electronic patient portals and phone support. She is partnering with community stakeholders in Memphis and surrounding rural areas for the practice-based trial to test how well this approach would work.

These cost-effective, innovative delivery methods would remove barriers to participation and to consistent implementation of obesity guidelines, all of which should make weight loss intervention more sustainable. “If we find that we can help people lose weight using the patient portal, then we can distribute this intervention to a larger group and potentially improve the health of the public,” Dr. Johnson said.

Dr. Johnson, who was recently ranked by the analytics company Expertscape in the top 1% of scholars writing about obesity in the past decade, is leading a study team that includes Phyllis Richey, PhD; Mace Coday, PhD; Fridtjof Thomas, PhD; Michelle Martin, PhD; and Catherine Womack, MD, all with the Department of Preventive Medicine. Charisse Madlock-Brown, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Diagnostic and Health Sciences, is also part of the team.

The five-year award will fund the project, which has been named CHAMPS “Choosing Healthy Activities and Lifestyle Management using Portal Support”.