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UAMS awarded $18.9M grant to study health disparities in Black, rural communities

by Neal Earley | November 16, 2021 at 7:12 a.m.
Jo Thompson, CFO of the Department of Health, addresses the audience during an announcement of an $18.9 million award from the National Institutes of Health during a press conference at the Wrightsville Community Center on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford) CORRECTION: Jo Thompson addresses the audience in this photo. An earlier version of this cutline misidentified the speaker.

WRIGHTSVILLE -- The National Institutes of Health have awarded the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences a $18.9 million grant to establish a new center to study health disparities in Black and rural communities.

At a press conference in Wrightsville Monday, officials from UAMS said the grant will focus on intervention and prevention for cancer and heart disease for communities in Northwest Arkansas and the Delta.

The grant will fund the Center for Research, Health and Social Justice for five years, giving it a mandate to study ways to close the racial and rural gaps in health outcomes and access to treatment.

"These two communities have suffered too long and disproportionately from cancer and cardiovascular disease, and the social and structural conditions -- like poverty -- that cause these disparities," said Pebbles Fagan, who, along with Carol Cornell, will lead the Center for Research, Health and Social Justice at UAMS.

Arkansas' Black and rural communities have long suffered from an outsized number of cases of cancer and heart disease, which are caused in large part by the high levels of poverty in those communities, Fagan said.

In particular, poverty causes poor health outcomes for many, as food insecurity leads to poor nutrition and high healthcare costs often make people decide between seeking treatment or going into medical debt.

"It's expensive to be poor -- it's very expensive to be poor," Fagan said.

Pulaski County Judge Barry Hyde said the county is a good research subject for the grant, calling it the "perfect blend of rural and urban living."

"In partnership and through funding provided by this grant, [UAMS] will be able to further provide services into areas that remain primarily underserved and vulnerable to effects of health disparities," Hyde said.

In rural Arkansas, where cancer and heart disease rates are the highest, access to affordable healthcare can be hard to find as there are few doctors and health clinics in some parts of the state.

"Even people who have insurance or who have Medicaid have issues getting to healthcare in a lot of our rural areas," Cornell said.

Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death in Arkansas followed by cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

In both heart disease and cancer mortalities, Arkansas ranked ahead of the national average, coming in at third for heart disease mortality and seventh for cancer in 2019 according to the CDC.

Particularly hard hit is the Arkansas Delta with its high rates of poverty, lack of access to healthcare and high rates of cancer mortality.

Four of the five Arkansas counties with the highest rates of cancer in 2015-2019 are in the eastern part of the state, with Monroe County having the highest rate at 249.5 deaths per 100,000, according to NIH.

Drilling down on the causes and working on outreach to Black and rural communities will be one of the primary objectives of the grant, with Cornell saying UAMS will partner with all the Historical Black Colleges and Universities in the state.

Some of the research projects funded by the grant will focus on food insecurity and tobacco use, alcoholism and the nutrition of free and reduced lunches at schools in Northwest Arkansas.

With alcohol abuse being one of many causes of cancer in the state, UAMS will use the grant to fund research on rural barbershops to help reduce "excessive alcohol use among African American males."

The grant will also go towards training researchers and community engagement to "help communities become more socially just and, in turn, facilitate access and uptake of preventive health care."

While the grant won't go towards funding access to affordable healthcare, it can help facilitate it, Cornell said.

"We don't specifically have funding to develop more resources in terms of healthcare, you know, bringing a doctor into a rural community -- but UAMS does," Cornell said.

Shuk-Mei Ho, vice chancellor for research and innovation at UAMS, said the $18.9 million grant could be used to leverage more resources in around 30 counties across Arkansas.

The covid-19 pandemic has also had an effect on health disparities as many people have forgone preventative treatments and screenings.

"Covid has delayed many treatment and prevention programs," Ho said. "Our communities are actually stressed right now and desperately need additional investment."

UAMS is one of just 11 recipients of $200 million in NIH funding for research into chronic disease and how they "disproportionately affect populations with health disparities."

For UAMS, the grant could also help the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute gain national recognition through a NIH National Cancer Institute designation, according to UAMS vice chancellor Dr. Michael Birrer.

"This award expands on our statewide efforts to address three major risk factors for cancer: tobacco use, obesity/nutrition issues and alcohol use," Birrer said in a statement. "Arkansas communities are hit disproportionately by cancer compared to other states in the nation. We now have an opportunity to address cancer risk and social determinants of cancer risk factors."


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