It’s not fair, but the reality is that such factors as race or gender can impact disease prevalence and morbidity. Few know that better than Dr. Marvella Ford, who got a firsthand taste of what health disparities can do to a family. She had to grow up as a child not knowing any of her grandparents who had passed away before she was born. Then came the death of her mother when Ford was 36 and her father when she was 40.
“Just feeling the impact of health disparities on a personal level is what drives me every day to come to work to find solutions to the problems,” she said. “We know there are solutions. They often exist in the community and in the academic settings and in the clinical settings. If we can bring the key stakeholders together, we can find solutions to these health disparities.”
Ford’s research interests include evaluating the impact of patient navigation interventions on health care behavior, developing and testing methods to improve cancer surveillance adherence, developing and testing methods to improve cancer screening adherence and improving informed decision–making for cancer screenings.
One innovative project she oversees is the MOVENUP Initiative (Mobile Outreach Van, Educational, and Navigational Health Services for Underserved Populations). This program is designed to reduce disparities in cancer services access, morbidity and mortality in the I-95 Corridor with a focus on three common cancers occurring to a disparate degree within the SEVIEW (Southeastern Virtual Institute for Health Equity and Wellness) regions: breast, cervical and prostate.
She is taking what they’ve learned from that initiative to develop new models of service delivery for other areas of health disparities. Ford and colleagues analyzed data from the state cancer registry and linked it to state hospital data, finding that African-Americans were 50 percent less likely than European Americans to receive surgery for early stage lung cancer. “What is sad about that is that early-stage lung cancer has high cure rates just by surgery so what that means is that we are unneccesarily losing a lot of African-Americans to deaths that could have been prevented by appropriate treatment.”
Another passion beyond her health disparities research and community-based initiatives is developing a cancer research training program with students from historically black colleges and universities, thus exposing them to leading researchers.
All these efforts will make a difference in the long run, she said.
“My goal every day is to help another family enjoy each other for a longer period of time than I was able to enjoy my parents. That’s a strong motivator.”
At the MUSC Hollings Cancer Center, activities to reduce cancer health disparities in South Carolina include:
- A statewide cancer education training program in collaboration with community partners. The program employs a “Train the Trainer” approach in which the trained program participants conduct additional programs with other community members. Three hundred and fifteen trained community members have conducted the program with an additional 3,200 other community members.
- Research training programs for the “next generation” of cancer disparities researchers (undergraduate students from SC’s historically black colleges and universities and graduate students and junior faculty at MUSC). The programs have been conducted since 2007 and most of the participants have subsequently enrolled in graduate or professional school. More than 10 of the students have been included as co-authors on peer-reviewed scientific publications.
- A study to evaluate patient navigation as a method to increase rates of surgery among African–Americans in the southeastern US with early stage lung cancer
- A study to identify genetic variations associated with triple negative breast cancer, a more aggressive form of breast cancer which disproportionately affects African–American women. Genetic analysis results are forthcoming but preliminary data show high rates of overweight/obesity and low rates of physical activity in this sample of breast cancer survivors, which increases the risk of breast cancer recurrence.
- A study identifying factors associated with surveillance care colorectal cancer survivors
- An international Student Research Forum as part of the annual National Conference on Health Disparities
Hollings Cancer Center