Investigating Health Disparities - Higher Education


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Investigating Health Disparities

by Patricia Valdata

PHARMACEUTICAL SCIENCE

Investigating Health Disparities

HONG XIAO
Title
: Associate Professor of Economics and Social &
Administrative Pharmacy, College of Pharmacy, Florida A&M University
Education: Ph.D., Pharmaceutical Socioeconomics,
University of Iowa; B.S., Pharmacy, Beijing University
(formerly Beijing Medical University)
Age: 39

Although many scientists have a passion for research because they enjoy working in a laboratory, Dr. Hong Xiao chose her field because she wanted to interact with patients. That’s how Xiao, a native of China, found herself in the American heartland, studying pharmacy administration with Drs. Henri R. Manasse Jr. and Bernard Sorofman.

“The United States has a very developed system of graduate studies, so I came to the states for my Ph.D.,” she says. “First I went to the University of Illinois in Chicago, but my advisor [Manasse] moved a year later, so I followed him to the University of Iowa.”

Sorofman, Xiao’s co-advisor for her dissertation, still admires the work she did as a student studying the effects of pharmacy closures in rural Iowa. Manasse says she “undertook her research work with inquisitiveness and vigor. She has maintained all of these qualities as a faculty member and researcher in her discipline. She makes us all very proud to have been affiliated with her.”

While in graduate school, Xiao was introduced to the Geographic Information System. GIS has been used for many years in urban planning, but it is a relatively new application in health care research. One of Xiao’s career goals is to apply GIS to cancer research, especially prostate cancer.

“My other interest is access to care for vulnerable populations, and I use GIS as a tool to identify first whether disparities exist and then try to investigate the underlying factors that contributed to the disparity,” she says. “Right now, I’m looking at social behaviors like screening for cancer, prevention, diet, smoking, health or lifestyle factors.” She is also doing a pilot study of the incidence of prostate cancer in Florida.

Her interests in health care among minorities, and the lack of research in this area, led Xiao to FAMU in 1998, where she is investigating the behaviors that prevent Black men from getting an early diagnosis of prostate cancer. These behaviors include not wanting to appear weak, not wanting to deal with doctors or hospitals and an avoidance of one of the primary diagnostic tools, the digital rectal exam.

“And there are access issues,” she adds. “For people who are poor or don’t have health insurance, cost is a concern as well. So these are some factors that prevent them from going to be screened. By the time most African-American men are diagnosed, the cancer is already in a late stage. We want to get these men screened at an early stage so that their cancer will not spread and survival is better.”

Xiao would like to be able to develop an “access deprivation index,” which would calculate risk factors for disease based on income, location and health status, similar to what is already used in the United Kingdom. How to achieve this in the United States without running afoul of federal privacy regulations is a problem she says she is currently struggling with.

As it is for most researchers, Xiao says her biggest challenge is securing funding.

“Funding has been cut in the National Institutes of Health branches for health care research,” she says. “I’m not only interested in doing research by myself, but also in training graduate students in our university. Most of our students are African-American, so I want to get them involved in research, but without funding, it’s hard.”

In addition to her own research projects and mentoring student researchers, Xiao has a full teaching load, and she is currently acting division director of Economics Social & Administrative Pharmacy. She has accumulated an impressive list of honors, including twice being named “Teacher of the Year” in her division. Other awards include the 2001 Centers of Excellence Research Mentor Appreciation Award, the 2002 HBCU Faculty Scholar Award from the American Association for Cancer Research, the 2003 Teacher of the Year Award from the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy and the 2004 Minority-Serving Institution Award for a Faculty Scholar in Cancer Research from the AACR.

— By Patricia Valdata



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