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Northeast Ohio hospitals working to build trust with minorities, underserved

Blue Case Western Reserve University sign
Tim Harrison
Ideastream Public Media
Case Western Reserve University is leading the effort to better engage minorities and other underserved populations on health care.

Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine is collaborating with local hospital systems, including the Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals, MetroHealth and the local VA, to better target minority and underserved communities' health needs and build trust with those communities. The Clinical and Translational Science Collaborative is doing so by engaging with these communities early and often, including receiving their input on the design of potential health research projects, Grace McComsey, the collaborative's new director said.

"The goal is to make research count, make research lead to improvement in people's lives," she said. The intent is to have health studies "translated from showing in clinical studies [to] something to be disseminated to the community and be adapted clinically, because that's the only way that research will lead to improvement in people's life."

Case is using a $56.3 million, seven-year National Institutes of Health grant to accomplish these goals, focusing on Hispanic, Black, LGBTQ+, rural and senior communities, as well as individuals with disabilities, she said. The grant, awarded Aug. 2, is the fourth round of funding for the collaborative, building on nearly $175 million received from the NIH since 2007.

McComsey said collaborative's goal is not only to better target the care these communities need, but to get more of them to participate in clinical studies and be willing to follow research recommendations.

The Hispanic community is one group in particular the health care collaborative needs to do a better job of engaging, she said.

"There is a skepticism that that really we have to overcome," McComsey said. "It's so important to enroll Hispanics, for example, in studies. You cannot just ... ignore a group that's growing in the U.S. So so we're trying to work with them to make them understand that them being studied is very important to ... their community."

She added the same goes for rural communities in the area who have historically been skeptical of medical researchers.

An interest in better engaging rural communities, as well as recent immigrants, is why the collaboration just added the University of Toledo and Northeast Ohio Medical University in Rootstown, approximately 20 miles east of Akron, McComsey said.

To accomplish this goal it is important that the community have a sense of ownership of the projects, she said. Doing so means giving community representatives a seat at the table from the very start, McComsey said.

The group is dedicated to "really aggressive community engagement, preemptive before a study is done" she said. “A big part of the initiative of CTSC is to engage the community even before a study or at the time the study is designed.”

The collaborative is working with a community advisory board representing these different groups to ensure they have the right people at the table, she added.

The project will not just focus on engagement, but on issues such as the role of environmental factors in health outcomes, McComsey said.

For instance, the coalition will study how air pollution can lead to cardiovascular disease. One such project involves the impact of the East Palestine train derailment on health, she said.

"East Palestine, that's close to our heart," McComsey said. The collaborative has already funded a small cohort to study "the effects of the exposure ... on long-term cardiovascular, cancer, psychological" issues, she said.

Stephen Langel is a health reporter with Ideastream Public Media's engaged journalism team.