Making the innovative customary
For the Department of Health Disparities Research, progress is measured in real-world impact.
“A lot of folks are perfectly happy to do great science,” says David Wetter, Ph.D., professor and chair of the department. “Then there are those who are passionate about having something better happen out in the community, based on the science they do. We recruit those people.”
Wetter spearheads MD Anderson’s Center for Community, Implementation and Dissemination Research, funded under the Duncan Family Institute for Cancer Prevention and Risk Assessment.
The focus is to translate MD Anderson scientific discoveries into real-world interventions and determine how effective those interventions are.
McNeill plays key role
Enter Lorna McNeill, Ph.D., assistant professor in the department. While she moved to Houston not knowing much about the city, she had a solid understanding of the role African-American churches play in a community.
“It’s a delicate relationship, but what we do know is that churches are impactful places in which to conduct research on health promotion because many already provide wellness information to their members and the public,” McNeill confirms.
Wetter agrees, “We wanted to conduct research in African-American churches, but just needed the right catalyst to do it. Lorna was that person.”
McNeill developed Project CHURCH, which stands for Creating a Higher Understanding of Cancer Research and Community Health, in collaboration with Houston’s Windsor Village, one of the largest United Methodist Churches in the United States.
The goal is to better understand the role of behavioral, social and environmental factors on minority health and cancer-related disparities.
Church members respond
Participants receive prevention services, referrals, educational materials and assistance in finding health services and resources.
A major research contribution of Project CHURCH is the provision of 1,200 biospecimens to a national consortium studying the genetics of lung cancer in African-Americans.
The original plan was to enroll 1,200 members. Under Senior Pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell’s guidance, the study expanded to 1,501 members, exceeding all expectations.
McNeill encourages others to partner with faith communities for cancer prevention and offers her expertise to those who seek it.
“We need to innovatively approach different communities,” she says. “Eventually, we’ll have a whole cadre of people working directly with their communities to eliminate health disparities, and it won’t seem innovative. It’ll be customary.”