UA Combating Health Disparities to Build Healthier Communities

Apr 29, 2014

This story was orginally published in UANews:

At the University of Arizona, students and employees have long been actively engaged in efforts to aid in the statewide and global drive to improve individual wellness, access to care and the population’s overall health.

This month, as part of National Minority Health Month, the U.S. Office of Minority Health is drawing attention to a significant national concern: the pervasive lack of access to adequate health care and the disproportionate rates of health and medical conditions in certain communities.

"We all can appreciate the impact at the individual level of being at greater risk of disease and illness: lost wages and employment opportunities, less time spent with family and friends, or diminished overall quality of life," said Dr. Joe G.N. "Skip" Garcia, UA senior vice president for health sciences.

"Population health and health outcomes are relatively new concepts that focus on understanding the health of groups – why some are healthier than others, for instance – and how to improve the health of entire populations by reducing health disparities between groups," Garcia said.

The UA's established strengths in behavioral research, disease control and prevention, and community engagement make it well-positioned to help significantly impact the future of human health, he added.

The UA is "putting into practice new initiatives aimed at reducing health disparities, which will positively impact the overall cost of health care for Arizona while improving the productivity and quality of life across the state, from children's performance in school to the adult workforce’s on-the-job efficiency to the independence of our seniors," Garcia said.

Goals under the UA's "Never Settle" strategic plan include initiatives to strengthen the diversity of the campus community, invest in interdisciplinary efforts that address local issues with global applications and promote efforts addressing grand challenges, including those in medical and clinical settings across the state.

In the fall, Garcia established four advisory councils that focus on health disparities, population health outcomes, precision health and neuroscience. The councils address the Arizona Board of Regents mandate that the UA double its research enterprise by 2020.

"The adverse impact of health disparities extends to a much broader, societal level due to the resulting economic consequences, including the increasing cost of health care and lost business efficiency and productivity," Garcia said.

To address such challenges, the UA has developed programs and initiatives designed to meet community-based needs, interest youth in health careers, aid in diversifying the workforce and expand educational opportunities. Those programs include:

Diabetes Prevention and Education Center – The center recently opened at the UAMC South Campus to expand access to care. There, patients and members of the community receive self-management support through educational sessions.

Tohono O’odham Cancer Partnership Program – The program educates the public about cancer prevention, early detection and survivor wellbeing. The UA nursing faculty and students attend many of the health and wellness events and cancer survivorship community programs across the Tohono O’odham Nation. A comparable collaboration exists with the White Mountain Apache Tribe.

Health Network Dual-Role Interpreters and Spanish Ambassadors Program – The program addresses the crucial need for Spanish-speaking health professionals. The ambassadors combine their clinical expertise with their Spanish language proficiency for patients who speak only Spanish.

The ¡Vida! Breast Cancer Educational Series – The free, monthly breast cancer health educational series is offered to patients, their families and primary care providers via simultaneous statewide teleconferencing in both English and Spanish.

Focusing Research on the Border Area Summer Internship – The internship program provides students with opportunities to prepare for medical school while receiving hands-on research experiences. Students leave with an increased understanding of public health disparities in the U.S.-Mexico border region.

Garcia and others say being attentive to population health requires not only addressing individual habits or conditions, but also the structural deficiencies that create and perpetuate disparities.

"This commitment to diversity challenges us to continue to improve our educational programs, pursue the highest quality health care, critically address our extensive health care inequities and perform leading-edge research to help narrow the gap in health and access to care in minority communities," said Dr. Francisco Moreno, deputy dean for diversity and inclusion and professor of psychiatry at the UA College of Medicine – Tucson.

The Office of Diversity and Inclusion at the UA College of Medicine was established to lead its current diversity and inclusion efforts and initiate new programs. It creates interest in careers in medicine within minority and other underserved populations, Moreno said, adding that the college also provides support service and research opportunities.

On main campus, Maria Teresa Velez, associate dean for the UA Graduate College, is the principal investigator on a number of federally and UA-sponsored programs working to expand the diversity of students pursuing graduate degrees. 

Programs such as the Minority Access to Research Careers and Initiatives to Maximize Student Diversity, for example, prepare and motivate undergraduates through research to pursue biomedical careers and help support those who enter doctoral degrees. Graduate Access Fellowships help first-generation, low-income students pay for graduate education. And the new Work-Ready Master's Incentive Program, which supports master's students who are Arizona residents, helps students meet the emergent workforce needs of the state, including needs related to addressing health inequities.

Within the context of addressing disparities, it is crucial to more closely align undergraduate and graduate training programs with community needs, Velez said.

"An educated population will continue to support the social and economic development of the state, as well as the well-being of its inhabitants," Velez said.

"We need to train professionals – in education, nutritional sciences, microbiology, public health, speech and hearing, environmental sciences and elsewhere – to help communities to improve their lot," she said. "This helps to promote a cycle of wellness, and also a cycle of economic power."

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