U of A Doctoral Student to Lead Research into Health Disparities

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences has been awarded a three-year, $2.99 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to address health disparities in the Hispanic and Marshallese communities in Benton and Washington counties.

Pearl McElfish, a doctoral student at the University of Arkansas and director of research for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences campus in Fayetteville, is a co-principal investigator for the project, which also includes Melissa Terry, a graduate student in the U of A public administration program.

“Northwest Arkansas is an area with the largest number of Marshallese and Hispanic residents in the state. These populations are rapidly increasing and have significant health disparities,” said Peter Kohler, vice chancellor of UAMS Northwest and a distinguished professor in the College of Medicine and co-principle investigator for the CDC grant.

“This grant will fund efforts to drive down chronic disease problems and costs in the region by increasing access to opportunities for chronic disease prevention and risk reduction and increasing access to environments with healthy food options, among other objectives,” Kohler said.

Chronic disease prevention, Kohler noted, not only improves patients’ quality of life but provides economic benefits as well. According to projections by the Milken Institute, chronic disease cost Arkansas’ economy approximately $25 billion last year, including treatment and lost productivity. That cost is projected to rise to $42 billion annually within a decade without better prevention and management education.

In 2013, UAMS Northwest appointed McElfish, who is working toward a doctoral degree in public policy at the University of Arkansas, to begin building a research and community-based program infrastructure for UAMS with the goal of addressing health disparities, including high incidences of chronic disease in underserved populations. In less than two years, the community-based program has established six active projects that have been awarded $5.1 million in funding.

“The CDC award is part of our community-based participatory program,” said McElfish, co-principle investigator. “This means we engage the community in research and community health projects that address topics that are important to the underserved.”

While northwest Arkansas continues to enjoy economic growth and counts itself a statewide leader in health outcomes, there are communities that are left out of that prosperity and excluded from equitable health care, she said.

“We are committed to research and programs that will lead to transformation and reduction of those health inequalities and costs,” McElfish said.

The grant project is facilitated by a coalition that includes: UAMS and its Family Medical Centers in Fayetteville and Springdale, Arkansas Department of Health, Feed Communities, Endeavor Foundation, Northwest Arkansas Council, Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese, Gaps in Services to the Marshallese Task Force, Univision Arkansas and Arkansas League of United Latin American Citizens.

The CDC grant is through the Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) initiative, which is part of a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The initiative supports public health efforts to reduce chronic diseases, promote healthier lifestyles, reduce health disparities, and control health care spending. REACH is financed in part by the Prevention and Public Health Fund of the Affordable Care Act.


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