November 16, 2021

UAMS Receives $18.9 Million NIH Award to Address Health Disparities

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By David Robinson

The five-year award from the NIH National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) will support the establishment of the Center for Research, Health and Social Justice – one of only 11 Multiple Chronic Disease (MCD) Centers funded in the United States. Leading the grant are Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health faculty members Carol Cornell, Ph.D., a professor and chair of the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education, and director of the NIMHD-funded Arkansas Center for Health Disparities, and Pebbles Fagan, Ph.D., MPH, a professor and director of the Center for the Study of Tobacco.

“This exciting new award ranks among our largest and will support a highly innovative social justice program to guide research, training and community engagement activities,” said Shuk-Mei Ho, Ph.D., UAMS vice chancellor for Research and Innovation. “The elimination of health disparities and promotion of health equity is a Healthy People goal for our nation and for Arkansas. According to the Advisory Committee for Healthy People 2020, health disparities are systemic and plausibly avoidable.”

The overall goals of the center are to:

  • Advance the science of chronic disease health disparities through multidisciplinary team science to improve cancer and cardiovascular outcomes.
  • Facilitate research and training opportunities to strengthen the capacity of researchers and community members to develop interventions that reduce cancer and cardiovascular disease disparities using social justice principles.
  • Support academic-community partnerships to address the root causes of chronic disease disparities among African Americans and in rural areas in the state.

“This is a remarkable achievement for UAMS and the College of Public Health,” said Dean Mark Williams, Ph.D. “The Center for Research, Health and Social Justice will be a tremendous catalyst for accomplishing our institutional goal of improving health and health care for all Arkansans.”

The new funding is also critically important to the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, which is working to attain NIH National Cancer Institute (NCI) Designation, said Michael Birrer, M.D., Ph.D., vice chancellor and director of the UAMS institute.

“This award expands on our statewide efforts to address three major risk factors for cancer: tobacco use, obesity/nutrition issues, and alcohol use,” Birrer said. “Arkansas communities are hit disproportionately by cancer compared to other states and the nation. We now have an opportunity to address cancer risk and social determinants of cancer risk factors.”

The new center already has more than 50 community and organization partners and collaborators across Arkansas and at research institutions in other states. Partners include the Arkansas Department of Health, Arkansas Department of Education, Coalition for a Tobacco Free Arkansas, the City of Little Rock, Pulaski County, school districts and universities in Arkansas, and other community organizations in Arkansas communities. Many UAMS entities are involved, including the Division of Research and Innovation, Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute and the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement.  Other key partners are Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, and Eastern Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina.

“Over the past five years, Pulaski County and UAMS have partnered on several projects designed to improve the quality of life in our communities, specifically in largely underserved and vulnerable communities,” said Pulaski County Judge Barry Hyde. “In partnership and through the funding provided by this grant, we will be able to further expand services into areas that remain primarily underserved and vulnerable to the effects of health disparities.”

Brian Gittens, Ed.D., MPA, vice chancellor for the UAMS Division for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, will have a significant collaborative role on the social justice component of the project.

“This award provides us a great opportunity to transform our own institution as well as others to improve health through training and diversifying the research workforce,” said Gittens. “Social justice approaches go beyond changing chronic disease risk factors and requires that we create a model research ecosystem, social and structural conditions, and community infrastructures that support the ability to eliminate cancer and cardiovascular disease disparities.”

“Race and place-based health disparities are long-standing, and the solutions require multilevel approaches that integrate solutions across disciplines, sectors and organizations,” Fagan said. “Our over 50 partnerships, including many partners in Pulaski County, provide the foundation for repositioning and resetting the dialogue, our approaches, and our collective actions toward eliminating multiple chronic disease disparities in rural areas and among African American Arkansans.”

The Center includes five major components:

  • Training to build the next generation of researchers and practitioners to address cancer and cardiovascular disease disparities across the state.
  • Community engagement to help communities become more socially just and in turn facilitate access and uptake of preventive health care related to cancer and cardiovascular disease.
  • Research to reduce tobacco use among African Americans in Lee, Chicot, Phillips and Desha counties.
  • Research in barbershop settings in rural areas to reduce excessive alcohol use among African American males.

Research to examine the effectiveness of school nutrition policy on reducing obesity and providing good nutrition to children in low resource rural schools in Northwest Arkansas.

“We’ve been funding health disparities research through the Arkansas Center for Health Disparities since 2007, but this new award takes our efforts to an entirely different level,” Cornell said. “The new Center for Research, Health and Social Justice will greatly expand our partnerships in this work and increase opportunities for research, training and community engagement. Perhaps most importantly, the focus on social justice in every aspect of the new Center and coordination with other centers across the country will accelerate progress toward our ultimate goal of eliminating health disparities.”


UAMS is the state’s only health sciences university, with colleges of Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, Health Professions and Public Health; a graduate school; hospital; a main campus in Little Rock; a Northwest Arkansas regional campus in Fayetteville; a statewide network of regional campuses; and seven institutes: the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, Jackson T. Stephens Spine & Neurosciences Institute, Harvey & Bernice Jones Eye Institute, Psychiatric Research Institute, Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging, Translational Research Institute and Institute for Digital Health & Innovation. UAMS includes UAMS Health, a statewide health system that encompasses all of UAMS’ clinical enterprise including its hospital, regional clinics and clinics it operates or staffs in cooperation with other providers. UAMS is the only adult Level 1 trauma center in the state. U.S. News & World Reportrecognized UAMS Medical Center as a Best Hospital for 2021-22; ranked its ear, nose and throat program among the top 50 nationwide for the third year; and named five areas as high performing — colon cancer surgery, diabetes, hip replacement, knee replacement and stroke. Forbes magazine ranked UAMS as seventh in the nation on its Best Employers for Diversity list. UAMS also ranked in the top 30% nationwide on Forbes’ Best Employers for Women list and was the only Arkansas employer included. UAMS has 2,876 students, 898 medical residents and six dental residents. It is the state’s largest public employer with more than 10,000 employees, including 1,200 physicians who provide care to patients at UAMS, its regional campuses, Arkansas Children’s, the VA Medical Center and Baptist Health. Visit www.uams.edu or www.uamshealth.com. Find us on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Instagram.