Kennesaw State professor receives $6 million grant to address health disparities in Puerto Rico

Israel Sánchez-Cardona Israel Sánchez-Cardona (photo by Darnell Wilburn, courtesy of Kennesaw State University)

[This article by David Roberts first appeared on the Kennesaw State University website, republished with permission]

Kennesaw State University associate professor of psychology and associate director of the AMES Research Center, Israel Sánchez-Cardona will embark on a five-year, $6 million research initiative sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) aimed at developing partnerships between researchers and community organizations to address structural issues affecting health in Puerto Rico.

The Puerto Rico-based research initiative will focus on specific community issues contributing to poor health, identifying and addressing impediments to economic development, healthcare access and quality, and nutrition and food environment.

“We are excited about this opportunity to develop innovative ways to promote structural changes to address social determinants of health,” Sánchez-Cardona said. “In the last couple of years, Puerto Rico has faced social, economic, and environmental adverse events that have maintained social determinants of health, including poverty, unemployment, and access to quality health care, among others. Children and youth are greatly affected by these structural determinants, perpetuating social and mental health disparities.”

To address these structural issues, Sánchez-Cardona partnered with Grupo Nexos, an applied public health institute in Puerto Rico that works to improve community health and well-being by implementing scientifically proven intervention strategies. Grupo Nexos will lead this initiative in collaboration with Kennesaw State University and the Hispanic Alliance of Clinical and Translation Research as research partners.

“Research shows that impoverished children and youth are at the greatest risk of experiencing adverse health outcomes. Our main challenge with this initiative is to reduce child poverty and increase mobility opportunities that foster equity, wellness, and healthy development. We believe that it is paramount to intervene in the social context and provide additional resources for children and youth from less privileged socioeconomic status to attain their full health potential,” said Marizaida Sánchez-Cesáreo, one of the initiative’s principal investigators and executive president of Grupo Nexos.

Poverty is the structural barrier fueling health disparities in Puerto Rico, according to Kids Count Puerto Rico, with 57 percent of children and youth living under poverty levels with a median household income of $21,492. The project will address 20 municipalities in the southwest region of Puerto Rico.

The research partners will develop a cohesive plan to introduce scientific resources in community collaborations, promote sustainable public health institutes, and promote strategies focused on the “knowledge economy,” a system where knowledge and information are primary drivers of economic growth.

“With this project, we aim to intervene in the social context through policies, practices, and programs that will provide additional resources to children and youth from less privileged socioeconomic status in Puerto Rico,” Sánchez-Cardona said. “The goal is to ensure children, youth, and their families can attain their full health potential. As a Puerto Rican, it is a privilege to work on a unique initiative that will greatly impact the people living on the island.”

As research partners, Sánchez-Cardona and members of the Center for the Advancement of Military and Emergency Services (AMES) Research, Brian Moore and Tyler Collette, will provide expert advice in the design of the structural intervention research strategy, research study design, statistical analysis plan, and outcome assessment plan.

The ComPASS Grupo Nexos project is funded by NIH Common Fund award 1OT2OD035677-01 and managed collaboratively by NIH staff from the Common Fund; National Cancer Institute; National Institute of Mental Health; National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities; National Institute of Nursing Research; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; and NIH Office of Research on Women’s Health, with many of the NIH Institutes Centers and Offices providing input and participating in program development and management. More information is available on the ComPASS program website:

About the Initiative

The NIH is funding a first-of-its-kind community-led research program to study ways to address the underlying structural factors within communities that affect health, such as access to safe spaces, healthy food, employment opportunities, transportation, and quality health care. Through the NIH Common Fund Community Partnerships to Advance Science for Society (ComPASS), NIH will enable research into sustainable solutions that promote health equity to create lasting change in communities across the nation.

NIH is directly funding research projects led by community organizations. Leaders from the organizations will work in collaboration with their research partners at academic institutions and other organizations in all phases of the research process. ComPASS projects study social determinants of health — the social, physical, and economic conditions where people are born, grow, live, work, age, and play — that contribute to health inequities.