Penn State addresses rural health through community informed research, outreach
HERSHEY, Pa. — As Pennsylvania’s only land grant institution, Penn State faculty, staff and students are improving the lives of rural Pennsylvanians through research collaborations, outreach events and training programs. With more than 24 campuses and locations scattered across Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, Penn State is positioned to impact rural communities through groundbreaking research and earnest community outreach efforts.
Unfortunately, many rural Pennsylvanians experience poorer health outcomes, known as health disparities. Health disparities are preventable differences in the burden, or impact, of a disease or injury or fewer opportunities to achieve optimal health that are experienced by socially disadvantaged populations.
“Despite the significant advances medicine has made, not all communities benefit,” said Jennifer Kraschnewski, MD, Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) director. “Our CTSI’s vision is to advance rural health equity by ensuring our discoveries and outreach programs are reaching our rural communities. Successfully addressing rural health disparities requires engagement with community organizational leaders to understand current challenges faced and creating partnerships with our academic researchers, staff and trainees so we can work towards collaborative solutions.”
Penn State College of Medicine and Penn State CTSI are on the front lines of the mission to improve rural health and address health disparities by ensuring rural communities have access to the resources and partnerships to improve their quality of life.
“Our partnership with Penn State is helping to improve health in our community,” said Bonnie Kent, director of the Northern Dauphin Human Services Center. She’s worked with Penn State on various initiatives to enhance community health and wellness in northern Dauphin County, where an estimated quarter of the population is living below the poverty line. “Whether it’s funding to build our community garden, research into ways to break down barriers to health care, education and housing, or Penn State medical students volunteering their time to help our community members live healthier lives, this collaboration has been wonderful.”
Community engagement drives research in action
With the support of CTSI’s community-engaged research core, Penn State hosts community engagement studios where researchers solicit feedback from community members about their proposed research projects. To date, CTSI has hosted more than 23 engagement studios and faculty members say the community feedback helps them move their research forward.
Kristin Sznajder, PhD, an assistant professor of public health sciences, leads the Pennsylvania – Maternal and Infant Health in a Pandemic study, which is investigating how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting pregnancy outcomes. The community engagement studio she participated in helped her refine her recruitment strategy and some of the questions in her study’s survey.
“Community engagement benefits both the researcher and the community,” Sznajder said. “For the researcher, it ensures the study will be of value to the community and that the methods and documents make sense to potential participants. It also gives community members a chance to have their voices heard by asking questions and resolving potential concerns.”
CTSI hosts community-driven research days where community organizations meet with Penn State researchers from multiple campuses and colleges to discuss community needs, brainstorm solutions and develop research-based action plans.
“Community Driven Research Days are all about conversation and collaboration,” said Andrea Murray, Community Engagement Director at the College of Medicine. “When leaders of local organizations and researchers come together, the result is meaningful projects that fulfill community needs while also giving researchers an avenue to pursue their work.”
Earlier this year, CTSI hosted community-driven research days in Wiconisco, Pa. and in Sharon, Pa., where researchers from multiple Penn State campuses and colleges and community leaders gathered to identify community health needs and potential partnerships to solve those challenges through research.
One promising collaboration that came out of the northern Dauphin County event in Wiconisco will help address a need for pre-kindergarten education in the region. Deepa Sekhar, MD, co-lead of CTSI’s community-engaged research core, pediatrician, and director of Penn State PRO Wellness, and the Lykens Valley Children’s Museum have received funding from CTSI to develop a community-based program that will better prepare children living in northern Dauphin County for kindergarten. A total of fifteen children representing the Halifax Area, Millersburg Area, Upper Dauphin Area and Williams Valley school districts will participate in the pilot program, which will run from fall 2023 through spring 2024.
“Students who are poorly prepared for kindergarten struggle throughout the year, which leads to downstream effects on their future education,” said Lisa Ditty, executive director of the Lykens Valley Children’s Museum. “We’re excited to partner with Penn State to address this educational disparity in our community and hope this pilot program will fulfill a community need by offering support for families that cannot enroll their child in a preschool.”
Tackling health disparities and increasing community wellness
In addition to research opportunities, groups like Penn State Student-run and Collaborative Outreach Program for Health Equity (SCOPE) — a mobile student-run free clinic that provides affordable, effective and culturally responsive health care to underserved patients in central Pennsylvania — are helping address gaps in rural health equity.
“Our partnership with Penn State is helping to improve health in our community. Whether it’s funding to build our community garden, research into ways to break down barriers to health care, education and housing, or Penn State medical students volunteering their time to help our community members live healthier lives, this collaboration has been wonderful.” – Bonnie Kent, Director of the Northern Dauphin Human Services Center
Through partnerships with Penn State SCOPE, College of Medicine medical students have engaged with community members in northern Dauphin County by providing flu shots, health screenings and building relationships with residents through education. During the COVID-19 pandemic, students provided resources to more than 200 families during a drive-through event. More recently, students discussed preventive screenings for breast cancer and provided information on diseases like dementia to nearly 300 women who attended a local Ladies Night Out Event.
Faculty, staff, and undergraduate and graduate students affiliated with CTSI’s Community Engaged Research Core, Penn State College of Health and Human Development and the Department of Human Development and Family Studies and Center for Healthy Aging, brought more than 1,800 items to a local church in northern Dauphin County where items were donated directly to community residents from 29 households.
To provide residents with the tools to help address health needs in their communities, six northern Dauphin community members will train to become certified community health workers over a 12-week period thanks to a College of Medicine Community Health Worker Scholarship Grant Program. Bonnie Kent, director of the northern Dauphin Human Services Center, said those six community members will then be able to help their neighbors access health care and other needed resources to improve their health and quality of life.
Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute and Penn State College of Medicine are leading the way in improving health for rural Pennsylvanians. Through research, education and community outreach, Penn State faculty, staff and students are making a positive impact for residents of the Commonwealth and beyond.
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