Despite countless efforts and initiatives to close the gap, racial and ethnic disparities in health care outcomes continue to burden many with chronic diseases and lower life expectancies. Part of the reason for these disparities is underrepresentation in research.
In an effort to address these ongoing disparities, Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) has secured a three-year, $2 million contract from PCORI, the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, to establish an Engagement Coordinating Center for PCORnet. This new center will be directed by Dr. Karen Winkfield, executive director of the Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance (MVA).
PCORI is an independent, non-profit organization authorized by Congress to fund research that provides patients, their caregivers, and clinicians with evidence-based information to make better-informed health care decisions. PCORnet is a research network established by PCORI in 2013.
For years, the MVA has been working with PICORI to advance patient-centered research through inter-institutional collaboration.
Consuelo Wilkins, MD, MSCI, professor of Medicine and Senior Vice President for Health Equity and Inclusive Excellence at VUMC, as well as former executive director of the MVA, provided some historical context.
“Our role at the MVA really started back in 2013, when Vanderbilt initially applied to be a part of PCORnet,” she recalled. “Because we had this long history of community engagement at both Meharry and Vanderbilt, and had the infrastructure built around the Community Engaged Research Core, we were able to respond to PCORI’s charge of authentic community engagement—bringing in community members who could provide input, and really design it from the ground up.”
Eventually, the Community Engaged Research Core (CERC) received national recognition for its development of community review boards that strengthened patient-centered research. This included a contract with PCORI to improve patient engagement and understand its impact on research through community review boards (Community Engagement Studios).
At its core, the success of the CERC was built on authentic partnerships. According to Dr. Bryan Heckman, Meharry Medical College (MMC) associate professor and lead investigator on this most recent PCORI contract, the importance of building those relationships has never been greater.
“At this pivotal time, we must provide the next generation with a solid foundation and the blueprints to address health inequities,” he said. “To do this, we must increase workforce diversity and strengthen voices and participation of diverse populations and sectors that are fundamental to overcoming social determinants of health and enhancing health equity.”
To this end, Meharry Medical College’s community engagement team has developed a novel engagement strategy that positively impacts clinical trial diversity, DEI programs, and overall health equity. As co-lead of the evaluation team, Meharry aims to amplify the team’s innovative strategy by deriving best practices replicable nationally and internationally.
Moving forward, Dr. Wilkins is excited to leverage our new executive director’s strengths as a national expert in community engagement to build on that foundation, and to create new ways to give a voice to historically underserved populations.