KSU Social Science Pofessors Awarded NIH Grant for Health Disparities Research

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 KSU professors discuss their recent NIH grant and research at the 2:42 mark. 

Project to focus on chronic disease self-management for low-income African-American men

KENNESAW, Ga. (March 1, 2019) – Three Kennesaw State University researchers studying health disparities among various rural and urban populations in Georgia have recently been awarded a National Institutes of Health grant.

Evelina Sterling, assistant professor of sociology, along with associate professors of social work Carol Collard and Vanessa Robinson-Dooley, were recently awarded the $404,000 three-year grant to develop a new self-management and support intervention program for low-income African American men with multiple chronic conditions.

“The broad goal of our study is to better understand how factors such as race/ethnicity, gender, culture, socioeconomic status, and geography, influence people’s ability to manage chronic disease,” said Sterling, the grant’s principal researcher who teaches in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. “I knew it was the perfect opportunity to bring this research to Kennesaw State because NIH had a specific funding opportunity on self-management, and probably not many schools would focus on such a specific niche.”

Self-management practices enable people to take on active roles in understanding their medical conditions so they can better navigate the healthcare system, explained Sterling. However, individuals who are also experiencing social and/or economic hardships have more challenges such as transportation, money and insurance issues.

“From my experiences in the social work capacity, there is a significant need to better understand what challenges are disproportionately affecting vulnerable and underserved populations living with poverty and multiple chronic conditions,” said Collard, who teaches in the WellStar College of Health and Human Services.

For the first year, focus groups will be conducted with participants, their families and healthcare providers from rural and urban communities to figure out the opportunities and challenges they face. Then a peer-led self-management and support invention program called “Healthy Together” will be developed by the trio of researchers based on those interviews. The third year will focus on implementation and evaluation of the program.  

“We are excited about this project, especially the psychosocial aspect, because people already innately have the coping mechanisms to manage their health more effectively,” said Robinson-Dooley, who also teaches in the WellStar College of Health and Human Services.

This is the first NIH grant awarded to Kennesaw State focused on the social sciences in almost a decade.

Drs. Robinson-Dooley, Collard and Sterling

Vanessa Robinson-Dooley, Carol Collard and Evelina Sterling were recently awarded a research grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Medical Sociology Roots

Since 1992, Sterling has been involved in public health research focused on health disparities, first as an independent consultant before entering academia in 2014. Her interest in self-management began about 15 years ago when she was working with colleagues from Emory University, including Kate Lorig, a researcher and scholar from Stanford who developed a chronic disease self-management program that has been utilized for decades for people with a variety of chronic conditions. 

“To help decrease health disparities, self-management has been shown to not only have a positive effect on individuals, especially underinsured or uninsured populations, but also a positive economic impact on health care costs when most of these individuals usually go to the emergency room for their medical needs,” she said. 

The Lorig model, which has traditionally focused on middle-class populations, was adapted for individuals with a serious mental illness for the Emory study. Sterling explained that the people who received treatment tended to come from low-income households who were underinsured or uninsured with a dual diagnosis of substance abuse. Most of the participants were African American women who were more open to discussing their experiences than the few African American men who also signed up.

When Sterling came to KSU, the National Institutes of Health issued a funding opportunity announcement under the Academic Research Enhancement Award (AREA) program, focused on building the science of self-management for health in chronic conditions.

The goal of the AREA program is to bolster NIH funding at institutions that have not been major recipients of NIH support. AREA grants support small-scale research projects in the biomedical and behavioral sciences. The program also encourages the involvement of students so that they can be exposed to and understand the value of meritorious research. 

Sterling said that she decided to use her experiences from Emory and apply for the grant, specifically focusing on low-income African American men to find out if it would make a difference in how they approach their healthcare needs when a study involves one gender. 

Social Work Perspectives

Around the same time, Collard and Robinson-Dooley had completed two pilot studies using the original Lorig chronic disease self-management curriculum for African American men with behavioral health disorders.  They were studying the coping mechanisms and behaviors of the men who had or were experiencing homelessness, chronic illness, and substance use while living in a residential treatment facility. 

“Although there were marginal increases in the participants’ knowledge base and skill sets in handling their health, we noted that there were some limitations to effectiveness because of cultural differences or economic barriers,” said Collard.

She and Robinson-Dooley have known each other for almost 20 years, dating back to their time as graduate students together when earning their advanced degrees. Both have been practitioners before delving into social work research at the academic level.

“My primary research is chronic illness and behavioral health of African American men, but I also do some work around cultural competence and how we can better train our students to be able to work with other cultures and assist people with their development,” said Robinson-Dooley.

When the social work professors were thinking of their next step, they attended a NIH seminar in Baltimore in which they learned about the application and review process. The seminars are held annually to provide education and training for the next generation of biomedical and behavioral scientists. 

Fortuitous Collaboration between Colleges

As Sterling was preparing the grant application to NIH, she met Robinson-Dooley at a research event who introduced her to Collard. Their shared interests and interdisciplinary approach to research galvanized their partnership to seek out funding from a prominent federal agency.

“The College of Humanities and Social Sciences is very proud of Dr. Sterling’s accomplishment,” said Kerwin Swint, interim dean of the college. “NIH grants are very competitive – for example, only 16% of AREA proposals were funded in 2018. This award constitutes a significant advance in our College’s drive to successfully compete for external grants.”

“All of us in the WellStar College of Health and Human Services are very proud to play a part in the innovative and interdisciplinary work of Drs. Sterling, Robinson-Dooley and Collard,” added Dean Mark Tillman. “Their efforts will advance science and more importantly, remodel our view of chronic disease self-management by providing interventions for a particularly vulnerable population of low-income African American men.”


—Joëlle Walls

—Photos by Rob Witzel