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College of Medicine study aims to increase HPV knowledge, vaccination rates in rural Pennsylvania

The National Cancer Institute has awarded William Calo, PhD, JD, MPH, assistant professor of public health sciences at Penn State College of Medicine, nearly $2 million over five years to improve communication about the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine in rural areas and increase vaccination rates among adolescent patients in Pennsylvania.

A head-and-shoulders professional photo of William Calo

William Calo, PhD, JD, MPH

Vaccination is recommended to safeguard adolescents and young adults from contracting high-risk forms of HPV, which can later lead to cervical, anal and oropharyngeal cancers. Most insurance plans cover the vaccine if it is given according to national guidelines. Calo says vaccination rates remain low, leaving many of today’s children at unnecessary risk of developing HPV-related cancers.

“We expect the project to have a significant impact on HPV vaccination rates as we address the communication needs of both rural providers and parents, and eventually, reduce cancer inequities in rural Pennsylvania,” said Calo, a Penn State Cancer Institute researcher and principal investigator on the study. “We will also learn how to implement new communication strategies that can be adapted to support future COVID-19 vaccination efforts.”

The research team will test the effectiveness of two communication interventions delivered through Penn State Project ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes), a telementoring network that leverages a team of experts to enhance care and capacity for treatment in local communities.

Calo is the director of implementation research for Project ECHO. This is the study of methods and strategies that facilitate the incorporation of evidence-based practice and research into regular use by medical professionals and policymakers. The new study will build on his work improving health disparities in vaccinations, as well as utilizing his expertise in implementation science.

Calo and Jennifer Kraschnewski, MD, MPH, a Cancer Institute and Penn State Health primary care clinician-investigator who studies community health interventions, will use Project ECHO to deliver and test a two-step intervention strategy between experts at academic medical centers and primary care providers working in rural communities. The first intervention will provide training to primary care providers to improve communication about the HPV vaccine based on Calo’s prior work. The second intervention will build upon the training and include follow-up communication with parents who initially decline the vaccine. The team will evaluate the impact of these interventions on vaccine rates and acceptance. The study will enroll a total of 36 primary care clinics in rural Pennsylvania.

“Having an effective implementation science approach to reducing health disparities is critically important now more than ever and will inform future efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic,” Kraschnewski said. “Our hope is to support and educate rural primary care providers throughout the Commonwealth to improve vaccine communication, initiation and acceptance.”

Mack Ruffin, Bernice Hausman, Jennifer Moss, Benjamin Fogel, Joel Segel, Anne-Marie Dyer, Erica Francis, Ellie Hogentogler and Joanne Senft from Penn State are also contributing to this research. Parth Shah from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Nikole Johnston from the American Cancer Society are also joining the research team.

Learn more about this study and other programs offered by Penn State Project ECHO here.

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