In the Community

On Cancer: Reducing Health Disparities in US South Asian Population

By Esther Napolitano, BS, Science Writer/Editor  |  Thursday, October 10, 2013
There are more than 3.4 million people of South Asian origin in the United States. There are more than 3.4 million people of South Asian origin in the United States.

Memorial Sloan Kettering is leading an innovative initiative to reduce cancer and cardiovascular health disparities in South Asian immigrant communities in the United States. The effort is called South Asian Health: From Research to Practice and Policy.

“This is the first comprehensive collaboration designed to engage multidisciplinary researchers, practitioners, community members, and policy makers in developing a research and practice plan to improve health disparities in this population,” says Francesca M. Gany, Chief of the Immigrant Health and Cancer Disparities Service at Memorial Sloan Kettering and Principal Investigator and Co-Director of the South Asian Health Initiative.

Identifying Health Disparities among South Asian Immigrants

Recognized as one of the second fastest growing immigrant groups in the United States, the South Asian population is disproportionately affected by several cardiovascular disease risk factors. These factors include a high incidence of obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.

In addition, a number of studies have documented increased rates of oral cancers among South Asian communities that have been linked to the frequent use of smokeless tobacco products.

‟This major initiative is structured to foster sustained collaboration among South Asian health researchers and community experts who have a common goal to improve this population’s health outcomes on a national level,” says Dr. Gany. ‟The result will be a culturally directed, translational research blueprint with recommendations that can make a measurable difference in community settings.”

Addressing the Health Risks Affecting an Underserved Community

Supported by the National Institutes of Health, the ongoing initiative recently held a day-long research conference hosted by Memorial Sloan Kettering and attended by nearly 100 South Asian health experts from around the world.

Earlier this year, these experts were organized into six thematic working groups that engaged in a series of meetings to exchange preliminary data, approaches, and strategies to characterize and address the biological, lifestyle, and cultural factors that play a role in elevating the incidence of cancer and cardiovascular disease among South Asians.

Guided by a diverse steering committee of researchers and community leaders, the working groups focused on genetics and other underlying biological factors; diet, exercise, and the use of alternative medicine; inflammation, infection, and emerging research on the effect of human microbiome changes on obesity and diabetes risk; the use of alternative tobacco products and associated risk of disease; the role of cultural issues, institutional barriers, and healthcare reform on access to care; and stress and mental health issues.

The conference provided an opportunity for the researchers to present their findings, which included the discovery of a number of pressing gaps in the available data; recommend interventions such as the development of health-related services, research programs, and policy actions and advocacy; and devise new approaches that will enable healthcare providers and others to better carry out their recommendations to help address these health issues in the future.

Incorporating Community Input

There are more than 3.4 million South Asians in the United States, representing seven countries and a wide diversity of languages and religious affiliations. Many South Asians face poor healthcare access, which has been attributed to language, cultural, and financial barriers, including a lack of health insurance, inadequate language-interpretation services, and inaccurate perceptions about healthcare.

Moving forward, the initiative will invite members of the South Asian community to provide recommendations for policy priorities as well as input on research and services that are most needed. They plan to reach out to community groups in metropolitan areas with the largest South Asian populations, including New York City, Chicago, Washington DC, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay area, Atlanta, New Jersey, and Houston.

Interactive community town hall meetings will also be organized to facilitate the development of the recommended action items, and follow-up working group meetings will convene to finalize the community-informed blueprint.

South Asian Health: From Research to Practice and Policy is co-organized by the South Asian Health Initiative at Memorial Sloan Kettering; the South Asian Council for Social Service; and the Palo Alto Medical Foundation Research Institute’s South Asian Wellness Task Force in partnership with Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

South Asian Health: From Research to Practice and Policy is supported by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) at the National Institutes of Health under award NIH-1 R13 HD007147-01A.

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