Summit to address health disparities in rural Appalachia

For those who live along the Appalachian mountain range, limited availability of health care services, low level of health insurance coverage, and behavioral risks, such as opioid addiction, are challenges. Researchers at Penn State and other institutions are working to understand these challenges through the Appalachian Translational Research Network.

Appalachia is a predominantly rural region along the Appalachian mountain range, including 420 counties in 13 states from southern New York to Mississippi.  For Pennsylvania, 52 of its 67 counties are Appalachian.

On Oct. 30 and 31, the Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute will host in Hershey more than 100 researchers and representatives from academic institutions, health care organizations, community stakeholders for the Annual Summit of the Appalachian Translational Research Network. In addition to those from Pennsylvania, investigators and community members will be attending from Kentucky, Ohio, New York, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.  The summit agenda will be headlined by speakers from the National Cancer Institute, National Center for Advancing Translational Science, Appalachia Regional Commission, Vanderbilt University, and the Geisinger Health System. Co-producers of Inside Appalachia from West Virginia Public Broadcasting share their observations on the lives of Appalachian resident and communities.

This year’s summit will focus on developing collaborative relationships between academic investigators and Appalachian communities so as to address these health disparities. The intent is to pool expertise across the region for a reach that they couldn’t manage as individual entities.

“Together, we can address some of these health problems throughout the area so it’s not just limited to what can be done in one place,” said Eugene Lengerich, professor of public health sciences at Penn State College of Medicine and associate director for health disparities and engagement at Penn State Cancer Institute.

He said Penn State researchers – at both the Hershey and University Park campuses – have been involved with Appalachia studies for nearly two decades. Many of those studies have been related to cancer because death rates from colorectal, breast, lung and cervical cancers are particularly high in Appalachia.

Investigators are interested in know how social determinants of health, such as poverty and education, are linked to biomarkers for chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease. Others are particularly interested in infant mortality and the health of children in rural and Appalachian communities.

Limited access to health care services is particularly challenging for those who live in rural communities.

“Up to 50 percent of the counties in the catchment of area of the Penn State Cancer Institute do not have a hospital with an accredited cancer program,” Lengerich said. “We know that people in rural counties drive more than 30 minutes further for care, and that this added distance increases the cost, but more importantly, reduce the likelihood of a positive outcome.”

Another area of focus for the summit, Lengerich said, will be discovering strategies to involve Appalachian populations as participants in research.

“People from rural areas are less likely to participate in research studies, so the findings of studies may not be as relevant to them as to the majority urban residents who participate in studies,” he said. “We want to help overcome that disparity.

“It’s about learning from each other to find answers and best practices so we’re not all working in our own silos.”

The summit begins at 3 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 30 and ends at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 31 and will be held at Hershey Lodge and Convention Center.  Participants will have opportunities to present their work, as well as to see and hear what others have been doing.  To register for the summit, visit the event page.

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