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Health Equity Research Center (HERC) A WSU Grand Challenges Initiative

HERC Goals

Goal 1: Research

Current affiliates of the collaborative have independent and established research programs aimed directly at the first overarching goal of the center, namely, understanding the multifaceted and intersectional determinants of health disparities as well as understanding resiliency.

Our focus in this effort is on the crucial roles that social and economic disadvantages, chronic stressors, and poor nutrition play across multiple health problems—both physical and mental—in disadvantaged populations and across multiple units of analysis, including individual, family, and community. Importantly, stress and nutritional challenges have consistently been associated with poor health outcomes among historically underserved populations, especially insofar as they magnify risk factors and decrease both individual and communal resilience. Rarely, however, have these problems been addressed comprehensively across multiple dimensions.

As an example of our initial work, HERC used funds from the Grand Challenge Strategic Reallocation grant to award seed grants to 10 teams initiating new interdisciplinary (and cross-college) research projects with strong potential for extramural funding. Read about these Community Partnership Seed Grant projects.

The faculty seed grants that have been awarded can be expected to produce 6-8 new major extramural proposals to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). Within this calendar year, we expect to see publications stimulated by HERC initiatives begin to be accepted for publication.  Note that the timelines associated with community-based health disparities research is inevitably longer than many areas of basic laboratory research.

Over the next few years, we will be tracking the impact of HERC faculty publications (e.g., citations, quality of journals, press coverage). It should also be noted that HERC plans to continue to award seed grants in future years to further support interdisciplinary teams in novel work that should yield more competitive extramural proposals.

Goal 2: Capacity Building

With funds from the Grand Challenge Strategic Reallocation grant, we hired key faculty to enhance WSU’s expertise in social determinants of health, which supports our second primary goal. These faculty hires are listed in the table below.

Faculty Hired from HERC Funds

Name Affiliation Area of Expertise How Supports Objectives
Pablo Monsivais College of Medicine (Nutrition & Exercise Physiology) Nutritional epidemiology Dr. Monsivais studies social and behavioral determinants of diet and obesity to inform policies to reduce health inequalities.
Justin Denney CAS

(Sociology)

Health and Mortality Disparities; Family; Community Dr. Denney, the William Julius Wilson Distinguished professor of sociology, provides a key bridging research focus between translational studies of the social determinants of health and intervention studies designed to address health disparities.

The funding awarded from the grand challenge grant also allows for recruitment in Psychology to build expertise in the psychophysiology of stress.

As our second goal highlights, HERC supports multiple interdisciplinary investigations into health disparities and resilience. Just 1 example is a collaboration underway between Justin Denney in Sociology and WSU’s Initiative for Research and Education to Advance Community Health (IREACH), led by Dedra Buchwald.

The initiative proposes to build an Electronic Health Record (EHR) data and analysis system for WSU that will ultimately benefit the clinical training and community health research objectives of the ESFCoM as well as HERC-affiliated researchers in CAS and CAHNRS. This system will be used as an effective tool to mitigate and address health inequities across the State of Washington.

We will partner with the DARTNet Institute—a non-profit organization that supports practice-based networks in the use of existing and newly collected electronic health data to conduct research—to create a stable, systematic, and security-compliant EHR database that positions WSU as a leader in rural and urban health equity research and practice. Multiple proposals are in development to support this system; its creation will put the center in a strong position for competitive proposals to use it from sources such as the NIH and the RWJF.

Also consistent with our capacity-building goal, we have awarded 1 graduate student fellowship, which provides a 1-year RA. The Anthropology student, Avery Lane, is using the fellowship to master molecular analysis of biological samples to complement cultural studies of disease risk in vulnerable populations. HERC plans to continue to award graduate student fellowships in future years.

Goal 3: Partnerships and Community Impact

Consistent with the third overarching goal, we created a faculty and community partnership seed grant program to establish collaborations with community partners who work directly with health-disparity populations including people who experience racial discrimination, the poor, and rural individuals with poor health-care access.

Several of the interdisciplinary teams funded by the seed grant program are building collaborative relationships with health districts in our state that serve these populations. Examples of projects include investigations into the unmet health needs of African Americans and Pacific Islanders in Kitsap and Whatcom counties and identifying barriers to attaining quality health care in eastern Washington.

These pilot projects are designed to lead to major grants and publications directly related to HERC’s mission and goals. In spring 2017, we held the first Community Health Partnership Workshop attended by faculty, graduate students and representatives from 6 organizations who presented ideas for research collaborations and extramurally funded projects that could significantly increase their abilities to fulfill their health-care missions. In early September we awarded funds to 6 teams, each of which included at least 1 community partner and 1 WSU scholar. This was a critical step toward building a robust network of community partners to greatly enhance WSU’s capacity for community-based research funding.

In fall 2018, we hosted the second Community Health Partnership Workshop to hear presentations about HERC-funded research and to listen to representatives from 8 community organizations about barriers and obstacles they see daily and how a partnership with HERC could lead to insightful research.

We plan to continue to offer community partnership seed grants to build on important relationships that are key to HERC’s goals and that will position WSU for unique funding opportunities.