Blue Cross Blue Shield gives UF $1.6 million to address health disparities
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — People living in underserved areas may not always have the tools they need to start and maintain a path to better health.
That’s often the case among low-income, diverse rural and urban communities in Florida. In response to that problem, the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida Foundation has given $1.5 million to the University of Florida to promote faculty research that addresses health disparities among those residents.
The funding establishes the Florida Blue Endowed Chair in Health Disparities Research at UF. The chair will work to promote culturally sensitive practices in health care, train future health providers to follow these best practices, increase diversity among clinicians and researchers, and help lead efforts at UF to eliminate health disparities in Florida. The goal of the funding is to support community-partnered research to encourage healthy behaviors.
“Florida Blue’s mission is to help people and communities achieve better health,” said Susan Towler, vice president of the BCBSF Foundation. “Health disparities are one of the biggest challenges for people to live healthy, confident lives, and our Foundation is proud to partner with the University of Florida to find solutions.”
In addition, the BCBSF Foundation has established the Robert I. Lufrano, M.D. Health Disparities Support Fund with a $100,000 endowment to support undergraduate, graduate or postdoctoral students, academic programs and presentations.
Carolyn M. Tucker, a professor of psychology, and of community health and family medicine, and a term professor of health disparities in the UF College of Medicine, will serve as the first Endowed Chair of Health Disparities Research from the endowment. Tucker said she hopes the endowment will bolster further plans to establish the first health disparities research and community intervention center on the UF campus.
“I’m very committed and passionate about making this center happen and happen soon,” she said. “This new endowment will help us meet our research needs to create a place that will become a state and national resource to find ways to improve community health locally and across Florida and the nation. I am truly grateful to the BCBSF Foundation for caring about minority communities and health disparities, thus showing that they truly have an ear for the beat of different hearts.”
Tucker has spent 30 years conducting culturally sensitive community-participatory health promotion and health care research in racial/ethnic minority and low-income communities. Helping communities unite around health requires that health researchers, health promoters, and health care providers be culturally sensitive. Some members of racial minorities are leery of participating in medical studies, a fear partially based on a strained U.S. history of experimental medical testing of these groups. That’s part of the reason Tucker and her graduate students often travel to places where people feel comfortable, such as a church for a Bible study group, where they explain their research study and how it might benefit the church members and their community. Tucker and her team then enlist church members in an evidence-based health promotion program and ask volunteer members to be trained as community health empowerment coaches or community health workers who help implement the program and serve as research partners.
Tucker’s work has resulted in effective programs, tools and strategies to empower people to modify behaviors to improve health “under whatever conditions that exist in their lives,” she said.
Sometimes “whatever conditions” means helping people to learn how to interpret nutrition labels. It also can mean encouraging people with hypertension to drain water found in canned vegetables — often the only source of nutrition for those with low incomes — because that’s where much of the heavy salt content is. Often it means facing and getting around barriers to health promotion such as not having a safe place to walk for exercise and not being able to read food labels in order to make healthy food choices.
“Sometimes people don’t have family members who will praise a person’s steps to make healthier decisions,” Tucker said. “Part of our work is to encourage people in self-praise and conquering the psychology behind stress, depression and overeating.”
Creating a supportive environment often encourages healthy behaviors. Taking a walk for exercise may happen more readily when other household members are involved, or when friends participate.