News & Announcements

Health Disparities Researchers Walk Beside, Not In Front of Diverse Hawaiian Communities

Posted: May 07, 2018

Dr. Marjorie Mau has served as lead principal investigator of the Center for Native and Pacific Health Disparities Research since 2002, when it was established with a National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) grant at the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa. Her experience growing up in Hawai'i and as the only Native Hawaiian in her medical school class led to a deep passion for working with Hawai'i's communities on the health problems they care about. It also made her passionate about training people in those communities to not only volunteer in a study but also do the research.

"The word 'collaboration' or 'partnership' really doesn't capture the form of community engagement that we use in our Center. We literally walk with our communities–and not in front of them, but beside them," says Dr. Mau. "They're part of just about everything the Center does."

The Center started out by building the Ulu Network of partners at more than 60 sites across Hawaii. These partners included Native Hawaiian healthcare systems, community health centers, Native Hawaiian civic clubs and nonprofits serving Native Hawaiians, and grassroots organizations. The Network later expanded to include other Native populations in the Pacific, such as Alaska Natives and New Zealand Māori.

The Ulu Network groups' long-standing relationship with the Center is built on trust. Representatives from the community help identify the most pressing health problems and decide how best to combat them. And if they choose to work with the Center, partners are held accountable to the joint project.

"They help us ensure that the science is going to be strong–not just scientifically–but also with strong community validity by asking, 'How is that going to translate or transform the lives of the people it's meant to benefit?'" says Dr. Mau.

An example of this approach is the NIMHD-funded Partnership for Improving Lifestyle Interventions (PILI) project. The Center and five community partners, located mostly in low-income urban areas of Honolulu on the island of O'ahu, decided to address obesity. They adapted an existing weight loss education program so it used local language and examples relevant to Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities. The groups also added a program to help participants maintain their weight loss with the support of their family and community.

Researchers from the Center trained local staff members to collect data to find out whether the culturally adapted program worked. And it did: Six months later, participants who stuck with the program were five times more likely to have kept the weight off than were people in the control group, who followed a standard weight maintenance program.

Community training is one of the most enduring parts of the Center's Ulu Network activities, says Dr. Mau. "All of a sudden these young kids are like, 'Wow, I can do this. I never even thought of being a researcher.'"

Dr. Mau notes that while the PILI project went a long way to improve the health of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, participants could get even further if their doctors worked with them.

For example, in an NIMHD-funded study, Dr. Mau and the research team adapted information about diabetes for her ethnically diverse patients. But the team also went beyond that, creating short modules to teach physicians how to share decision-making with diabetic patients. Dr. Mau explains that by taking part in decisions, such as what medications to use, patients take ownership of their health.

The Center has helped counter the public's negative viewpoints of research. "Most people think that if you participate in research, you're a guinea pig. I think minority populations are very sensitive to that," says Dr. Mau. But since the Center and its Ulu Network partners work toward a common goal, communities know the research will be relevant to them.

And it is equally important for researchers to be accountable to communities. Since research funded by NIH is meant to benefit everyone, Dr. Mau says it only makes sense to work with communities on the issues they care about.


How the Power of Partnerships Can Help Transform Communities and Advance Equity

Posted: May 04, 2018

As a child, the United States Surgeon General Jerome Adams, MD, MPH, suffered from asthma so severe that he spent months at a time in the hospital, even once being airlifted to a children’s hospital in Washington, D.C. During these stays, he was struck by the fact that he’d never encountered a black physician. That finally changed when as an undergraduate he met a prominent African-American doctor who had overcome his own significant life obstacles. Seeing another African-American making important contributions to the field of medicine inspired the young Jerome Adams to decide, “I can do that too.”

With that resolve, he embarked on a path that led to becoming an anesthesiologist and culminated in his appointment as the nation’s 20th surgeon general.  

Reflecting on his journey, Dr. Adams notes, “that’s why the efforts at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) are so important. You’re providing mentorship and leadership opportunities to those who wouldn’t otherwise know how to navigate the world of public health.”

He shared these words during a visit to the Foundation where he discussed his role in building a Culture of Health with RWJF CEO Rich Besser. The conversation covered a range of issues in which Dr. Adams repeatedly stressed the role of partnerships in building healthier, resilient communities and addressing challenges such as the nation’s opioid epidemic. Here are a few takeaways from their conversation.

Intervene upstream to address the nation’s opioid epidemic.

Dr. Adams is open about his younger brother Phillip’s struggles with substance abuse. He had taken his 12- and 13-year-old sons to visit their uncle, who is currently spending 10 years in a Maryland state prison for stealing $200 to support his addiction. Phillip shared with his nephews that he suffered from untreated depression while in high school which led to self-medicating with alcohol, marijuana, and eventually other substances before he began committing crimes to support his habit.

“What’s most frustrating to me is that despite being a doctor, I couldn’t intervene alone. None of us can face this alone,” said Dr. Adams, noting that addiction touches everyone regardless of their race, sex, age, socioeconomic status or where they live.

“We need to understand that this is a complicated problem influenced by a variety of upstream factors, including childhood trauma and community resilience. The most cost-effective and humane way to address the opioid epidemic is through prevention and partnerships. For example, since local law enforcement is the number one touch point for connecting people struggling with addiction to mental health support services, we need to partner with them and help them understand their role in connecting people to the care they need.”

Dr. Adams believes in upstream interventions that address underlying risk factors such as adverse childhood experiences (ACES) which increase the risk for addiction. He also believes in shifting away from criminalizing addicts and instead, providing treatment options to support their long-term recovery.

The power of partnerships is key to building a Culture of Health.

Dr. Adams noted the importance of engaging non-traditional partners to create healthier communities, sharing his mantra “better health through better partnerships.”

“Local conversations and finding common ground is key to building a Culture of Health. We need to consider the roles of business, education, faith, and law enforcement in building healthier communities. I also challenge everyone to consider who else is not at the table that should be and reach out to them.”

He highlighted the role of the business sector in addressing workforce shortages, absenteeism, and productivity. While the businesses may view workplace health as an insurance expense, there is a larger role for them to play in instituting workplace wellness programs and by influencing policy at the community level. “We need to create a Culture of Health in all sectors. Businesses can play an important role in lifting up the health of their communities. By doing so, they can see better health, better productivity, and better return on investments.”

He also reflected on the partnership he formed with law enforcement during his tenure as Indiana’s state health commissioner. At the time, Scott County, Ind., was facing an unprecedented spread of HIV among intravenous drug users. Through his collaboration with law enforcement, Dr. Adams was able to institute an evidence-based syringe service program in one of the most conservative areas within Indiana. Doing so halted the spread of HIV in the community.

Frame issues so others understand their role in building a Culture of Health.

There’s tremendous opportunity in framing issues to help people understand their role in prevention, as well as health equity, according to Dr. Adams. “When I talk about health equity I mention veterans, those with disabilities, and people in rural areas,” he said. “Showing others how everyone benefits from addressing inequities is more effective than using moral arguments.”

Another example Dr. Adams shared to illustrate this was noting how overworked teachers may feel burdened by having to promote a variety of programs including healthy eating and physical fitness. The fact that teachers are evaluated and paid based on test scores can be the bridge to compel them to advocate for students’ physical activity. “If we tell them we have a physical fitness program to help get test scores up, they listen.” Such an intervention was implemented in an Indiana community while he was health commissioner. When teachers witnessed the positive results, they scrambled for access to exercise rooms before their students took exams.

“It shows how we need to frame issues to help people understand how supporting health can help them achieve their goals—versus expecting them to see things from our point of view. We need to use language that resonates with those we’re talking to in order to gain their support.” 


Study Shows Major Mental Healthcare Disparity Between Whites and Asian-Americans

Posted: May 02, 2018

One in five people suffer from some kind of mental health condition. That number is lower among Asian Americans — but it’s not because they are any less affected. A new study out this week shows a glaring disparity between whites and Asians when it comes to diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders.

When psychiatrist Xiaoduo Fan was working at Massachusetts General Hospital, he started to notice a pattern. “I noticed that Asian Americans rarely present to the outpatient setting to seek mental health care,” Fan said.

It was more common to see Asian Americans with mental health disorders when things got dire, like in the emergency room or among hospitalized patients. Fan wanted to know why. He and his team of researchers at UMass Medical school examined more than 360,000 MGH patient records from 2009. In their study, they found that whites were more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with mental health disorders than Asian Americans, and even among those diagnosed, whites were twice as likely to receive medication.

Fan says a couple things account for this disparity. Mental health continues to carry a deep stigma in Asian cultures. “In Asian cultures in general, when someone is talking about emotional experiences, psychological disturbances and challenges, it’s considered a character defect or personal weakness," Fan said.

But a lack of cultural competence on the part of the healthcare providers is another part of the equation.

Asian Americans are the fastest-growing minority group in the country. Despite that, they are largely underrepresented in mental health professions. They’re not alone. Other research has shown similar significant disparities among Latinos and blacks. And even if care is available in the community, racial and ethnic minority groups are less likely to use it.

Fan said if providers were better able to understand this stigma and the vocabulary many Asian-American patients use to communicate emotional or mental distress­ — often through physical aches and pains, they could facilitate patients to better describe their emotional experiences.

“In Asian cultures in general, sharing feelings or psychological experience in general [is] not encouraged, so that’s why people who grow up in Asian cultures, they may not develop that vocabulary to describe their emotional experiences or feelings,” Fan said.

Susanna Yee, a 25-year-old graphic designer in Boston, can relate. Her immigrant parents juggled multiple jobs while raising her and her brother in Dorchester. Even when there was time to talk, they didn’t talk about feelings.

“I feel like anxiety was always something that was really hard to portray to my mom, so I would just say like, 'Oh, I'm not feeling good,' or that sort of thing. So it would really be pretty vague, if even discussed at all,” Yee said.

She said other priorities were getting food on the table and making sure bills were paid and that she and her brother got to school on time and kept up their grades.

It wasn’t until Yee was in college that she learned about counseling. It came at a time when grief and stress were mounting. Her father had died suddenly before school started. Then her grandfather passed away. She was trying to keep it together while enrolled in a rigorous graphic design program.

“I didn't know there was a doctor there for your mental health,” said Yee. “It seemed really foreign to me but when I was talking to my classmates it's, like, well, 'There are some days that you're really stressed out and having someone as a counselor is a really good way to talk about your feelings.’”

The counseling helped, and then she stopped going for a while. Shortly after college, though, Yee was dealt another tragic blow. Her mother died after battling cancer. All the losses in the span of five years left Yee reeling, but seeing her therapist regularly has given her the tools to cope. Yee only wishes more Asian Americans would feel comfortable doing the same.

“I would like for people to have more of an open conversation about it," Yee said. "I feel like the stigma is, ‘You should only see one if you're crazy or you're sick.’”

Xiaoduo Fan of UMass Medical says that's a common belief among Asian Americans. There’s also widespread skepticism of Western medicine, particularly among immigrants, who prefer personalized alternative therapies, such as acupuncture or traditional Chinese medicine.

“In Asian cultures, people don’t like to take these types of medications. They feel like these types of medications are toxic and not good for the body,” Fan said.

There may be some evidence to support that in the way some patients initially respond to treatment. The recommended dosage of psychotropic drugs is based on clinical trials made up primarily of white patients. Fan says he generally prescribes his Asian patients with dosages lower than recommended because of reports of adverse initial reactions.

There’s growing emphasis on understanding stigma and the values of other cultures in hospitals. In 2015, the American Hospital Association launched the #123forEquity campaign, an initiative to eliminate healthcare disparities. Mass General Hospital joined 1,500 hospitals in this pledge, and Joseph Betancourt of MGH’s Center for Diversity and Inclusion said MGH has ramped up its cultural competence training.

“We don't aim to teach them the do's and don'ts of how to take care of Asians or Blacks or Latino patients,” Betancourt explained. “But instead, we say there are a key set of cross-cultural issues that are important in different cultures, and that it's incumbent upon you to have a radar screen to pick up what, for example, words people might use to express depression in different cultures.”

Nhi-Ha Trinh, director of MGH’s Department of Psychiatry Center for Diversity, says clinicians are now required to document a cultural and ethnic history in every new patient evaluation.

“Eventually, the goal is to include this information/consider these factors in treatment plans for every patient we see. We are planning department-wide training to further these clinical targets,” she said in an e-mail.

Meanwhile, UMass Medical School is teaching cultural competence it to its students. Xiaoduo Fan is cautiously optimistic about this growing attention but says there’s a long way to go.

“This racial disparity is real, and I’ve seen so many Asian Americans suffer from mental illness, but they remain kind of underground and remain in this dark tunnel of struggle for years or for decades or for life," Fan said. "On the other hand, there are now treatments available in terms of medications or different types of therapy, even though there are not enough resources. But there are resources available.”


NNED Partner of the Month

Posted: May 01, 2018

In order to highlight pockets of excellence across the country the NNED selects an organization to highlight once a month. Union of Pan Asian Communities has been selected as the Partner of the Month for May in celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

Union of Pan Asian Communities (UPAC) is a non-profit organization that provides health and human services to under-served Asian, Pacific Islander, Latino, Middle Eastern, East African, African American and other ethnic populations of San Diego.

A few of UPAC’s major areas of focus include:

UPAC programs focus on assisting clients in meeting a wide range of needs through a personalized approach which recognizes the diverse ethnic and cultural identity of children, youth, adults and families.    UPAC’s culturally competent staff members speak over 30 different languages and dialects.  Guiding clients every step of the way as they confront life’s challenges, UPAC is dedicated to improving their quality of life by building trust and achieving sustainable results.

UPAC has a Multicultural Community Counseling program as part of thier Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. The goal of the Multicultural Community Counseling program is to provide counseling to individuals in a meeting place of their choice, where the environment is safe, comfortable and convenient, and they can openly share their concerns. UPAC counselors work with individuals who are experiencing issues such as behavioral challenges, adjustment struggles, symptoms of depression and/or anxiety, trauma, and school and/or family relational problems.  Because each child and family is unique, UPAC therapists form an individualized connection with the youth and supporting family to work together to identify goals that will lead to a successful daily life. 

Learn more about Union of Pan Asian Communities and how their programs and services are working to improve the lives of underserved individuals, families, and communities.

View a list of previous NNED Partners of the Month here.

Thank you for Attending! NNED Virtual Roundtable on the Impact of Opioids in Diverse Communities

Posted: April 30, 2018

On behalf of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), we invite you to participate in a Virtual Roundtable: Voices from the Field, the Impact of Opioid Addiction in Diverse Communities.  This Roundtable will be convened to discuss opioid addiction and treatment in communities of colors and strategies for community-based organizations to engage in cross-systems work. 

In addition to raising awareness and increasing knowledge of participants around opioid addiction and treatment, the Roundtable dialogue will aim to draw attention to cultural considerations, persistent disparities, and the cultural divide that play a role in the opioid crisis.

Join us on Wednesday, May 9, 2018 at 1:30 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. (EST) for this Roundtable!

Register now!

View the recording of the Roundtable

Related resources are now available on the NNEDshare website


Margarita Alegría, Ph.D. |  Chief of the Disparities Research Unit, Massachusetts General Hospital

Dr. Alegría obtained her B.A. in Psychology from Georgetown University in 1978 and her Ph.D. from Temple University in 1989. Since 2004, Alegría has been a Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, obtaining a dual appointment in the Department of Medicine in 2016. For 14 years prior, Alegría served as a Professor in the Graduate School of Public Health and as the Director of the Center for Evaluation and Sociomedical Research at the University of Puerto Rico. In the summer of 2015, she became the Chief of the Disparities Research Unit at the Massachusetts General Hospital (formerly the Center for Multicultural Mental Health Research at Cambridge Health Alliance, 2002-2015). 

Alegría’s research focuses on the improvement of health care services delivery for diverse racial and ethnic populations, conceptual and methodological issues with multicultural populations, and ways to bring the community’s perspective into the design and implementation of health services. In October 2011, she was elected as a member of the National Academy of Medicine in acknowledgment of her scientific contributions to her field. She has also been a recipient of notable awards, such as the Mental Health Section Award by the American Public Health Association (2003), the Health Disparities Innovation Award by the National Institutes of Minority Health (2008), and the Simone Bolivar Award by the American Psychiatry Association (2009).

Devin Reaves, M.S.W.  |  Executive Director, Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Coalition

Devin is a person living in recovery since 2007.  He is a community organizer and grassroots advocacy leader. Devin has worked on the expansion of access to the lifesaving medication Naloxone, implantation of 911 Good Samaritan policies, and the development of youth oriented systems. He wants to build constituencies of consequence that will lead to meaningful public health policy changes around substance use disorders. Devin is the co-founder and Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Coalition (PAHRC).

The mission of PAHRC is to promote the health, dignity, and human rights of individuals who use drugs and communities impacted by drug use. Recognizing that social inequity, criminalization, and stigma silence those affected most, we advocate for policies that improve the quality of life for people who use drugs, people in recovery, and their communities.

Devin received a Master of Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy & Practice with a focus on community and organizational change and has a BA in Human Services from Lynn University. Devin also serves on the Camden County Addiction Awareness Task Force and the Board of Directors for the Association of Recovery Schools.

Dr. J Rocky Romero  |  Director of Health Programs, El Centro Family Health in Espanola

J Rocky Romero is a former Assistant Professor for New Mexico Highlands University School of Social Work in Albuquerque, NM and is also a graduate of NMHU. He served as the co-chair for the Governor Richardson appointed NM Higher Education Departments Cultural Competency Task-Force.  Dr. Romero has also served as an Executive Council member for the NM-Consortium for Behavioral Health Training and Research (NM-CBHTR).  In addition, Dr. Romero completed his doctoral studies at the University of New Mexico in Language, Literacy and Socio-cultural studies and graduated in 2016. He is focused on culturally appropriate treatment while focusing in health disparities and access for health and mental health care in New Mexico for people of color. 

In his role at NMHU-SSW in ABQ from 2003-2016, Dr. Romero has conceptualized, implemented, and received legislative and Bernalillo County funding for two evidence based and nationally, certified with excellence, SW student training clinics focusing on training SW interns to be culturally aware and competent; while providing direct mental health services to the Albuquerque community.  Dr. Romero is also a national trainer for the Matrix Institute on Addictions and the National Hispanic/Latino Addiction Technology Transfer Center.  Dr. Romero is also a native of Northern New Mexico and has served on many boards, committees and task forces to address the needs of New Mexico’s students and citizens. Dr. Romero is currently the Director of Health Programs for El Centro Family Health in Espanola, NM which serves the Taos, Espanola, and Las Vegas regions across 22,000 square miles.  He is also the Chief Operations Officer for New Mexico Hope an LLC serving people with substance use disorder.  New Mexico Hope was recently awarded a contract by Bernalillo County Department of Behavioral Health Services for peer support specialist ran community engagement teams (CETs).

Jacob Davis, MPH  | Tribal Program Director, Prevent Child Abuse North Dakota

Jacob earned his graduate degree from North Dakota State University and was the first graduate in the MPH program with the American Indian Public Health specialization. He has over ten years of experience working with American Indian populations through various positions at both tribal and state academic institutions. Jacob also serves as a board member for the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition as well as being an active member of the North Dakota Cancer Coalition. At PCAND, his duties include working with federal, state, and tribal agencies to facilitate consistent access to family programming and services throughout the state.

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