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UMass Medical gets $6.7 million federal grant to battle health disparities

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School say they will use a new $6.7 million grant to battle significant health disparities in the region by using a grassroots approach that features patients telling their stories to inspire others.

The school announced Thursday that it was awarded a five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to establish a new Health Equity Intervention Research Center with scientists from UMass Boston.

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Low-income patients, and those from certain minority groups, including African Americans and Latinos, often suffer disproportionately higher rates of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other illnesses. The Umass researchers aim to test various cultural approaches to reduce health disparities.

Lead investigator Dr. Jeroan Allison, vice provost for health disparities research at UMass Medical School, said obesity is one of the most stubborn health problems in the Worcester area, a region with a large low-income population, and that can trigger a cascade of other health issues, such as diabetes and heart problems.

One of three programs the new research center will focus on is helping low-income, new moms lose excess weight after their pregnancies by increasing physical activity and improving their diets. The program will include nutritionists, peer leaders and encouragement from patients who have been successful in losing weight and who will share their stories, Allison said.

“When someone looks like you and you see yourself in their world, you sort of enter their world and become more open and receptive to the idea,” Allison said. “It taps into the community itself as a source of wisdom, as opposed to putting all the authority on the physicans.”

The idea of using storytelling comes from Allison’s earlier work in Alabama that found that patients could better control their blood pressure if they heard stories from other patients who were successfully controlling their hypertension.

“We found story telling to be amazingly effective, often as successful as prescribing a drug,” Allison said.

The grant money will also be used to fund two other programs. One, in the Springfield area, will focus on the high rates of teen pregnancies and HIV in the Puerto Rican community by encouraging conversations between mothers and children about sexuality.

Allison said the program will tap into the bond between mothers and their children because moms tend to be strong leaders in the Puerto Rican community.

The third project will focus on patients with high blood pressure at community health centers in Lowell and Worcester. It will feature community health workers -- people who live in the community but who are not trained health professionals. The workers will meet with patients to try to motivate them to take their medications and keep doctors’ appointments.

Research has been mixed on the effectiveness of community health workers, so the UMass project will combine them with the use of patient storytelling to guage whether that is more successful, Allison said.

The grant money will also be used to help train future health disparity researchers.

“I feel very passionate and excited about this work and the goal is to instill that in others,” Allision said. “We want to increase the diversity in the workforce, too, with more cultural and ethnic groups and with people from lower socio-economic backgrounds.”

Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.
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