By Tirthankar Sinha, Ph.D., February 26, 2021
Juliana and Marianne are neighbors, close friends, and both are mothers to 11-year-old sons. They are visiting Dr. Smith to discuss child vaccination. Dr. Smith advises both mothers that it is the ideal age for their respective sons to be vaccinated against the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). As per the CDC, HPV infection can lead to six different types of cancer and can spread simply via skin contact. However, Juliana agrees to vaccinate her child, but Marianne does not. When asked anonymously, as part of a public health survey, both Julianna and Marianne reveal the critical reason why they said yes or no to the HPV vaccine for their child: Dr. Smith’s race/ethnicity. Juliana and Dr. Smith belonged to the same race/ethnicity while Marianne was of a different race/ ethnicity.
(Disclaimer: Julianna, Marianne, and Dr. Smith are fictional characters and resemblance to anyone living or dead is purely coincidental)
That race/ethnicity of the doctor can be a determining factor for HPV vaccination has been elucidated by research conducted by one of the two of our UTHealth Featured Postdoc for Black History Month: Dr. Sharice Preston. In her own words, “I found out that people are more likely to get their child vaccinated against HPV if they have a doctor that is the same race/ethnicity as them. Right now, I am talking to doctors from all kinds of backgrounds to see if their experiences with race and ethnicity in the past explain these findings”. Dr. Preston feels being a postdoc at UTHealth has allowed her to grow immensely both as a researcher and collaborator as she has received stellar mentorship in areas that she did not have much exposure to. She further adds, “Immediately becoming part of the team and being able to contribute has also been instrumental to building my confidence in my abilities and has reinforced my desire to continue an independent career in public health research”. Presently, Dr. Preston is conducting transdisciplinary research to help improve the delivery of HPV vaccine services to underserved pediatric populations. Her research on “the association between HPV vaccination and physician-patient racial/ethnic concordance” has received pilot funding from UTHealth’s CCTS. She is trying to identify the social mechanisms that influence these mechanisms and relationships by conducting in-depth interviews with various pediatric providers about their experiences and personal relationship with race and ethnicity.
We are also honored to feature Dr. Jemima John as one of our UTHealth Featured Postdoc for Black History Month. Her research focuses on health disparities in vulnerable and underserved populations. It is best highlighted in the moving picture she paints in her own words, “Two babies are born at the exact time at a hospital, but the two families then take their babies home to two different realities. Neighborhood A is closer to an industrial factory and has limited pedestrian walkways, parks, healthy food stores, and health resources. Neighborhood B is definitively opposite. Moreover, while parents from neighborhood A have the same education as parents from neighborhood B, they have a higher debt burden. Tell me, which baby do you think will have more health concerns? My goal as a researcher then is to highlight these disparities and to intervene on these key social determinants in hopes of creating a more equitable playing field for these populations”. Dr. Jemima’s research at UTHealth focuses on how medical-legal partnerships can help vulnerable populations to connect with health- and social-enhancing resources in a more equitable manner. Further, she is trying to promote health equity through the qualitative research she leads as a member of the Greater Houston Coalition for Social determinants of health, by addressing food insecurity as a primary endpoint. Dr. Jemima John is a Stanley scholar fellow, and this has allowed her to have mentors from both the McGovern Medical School and the School of Public Health. This unique opportunity has further fostered her growth while at UTHealth, as she puts it, “This interdisciplinary approach to mentorship has engendered creative research ideas and projects, and I am so lucky to be in the middle of it all”.
There is a common thread linking both of our featured postdocs as we celebrate Black History Month: addressing social and racial factors that lead to disparities in healthcare access, services, and choices. It is even more crucial for Houstonians, as Dr. Jemima John crunches the numbers, “Though Houston is the most diverse city in the country, notable health and social disparities exist; over 75% of residents are overweight/obese; >25% are uninsured, and roughly 15% are food insecure. And unsurprisingly, BIPOC and lower socioeconomic status populations are disproportionately burdened.” This is integral to our goal at UTHealth and as we all remain committed to improving our country’s healthcare system equitably. Aptly, Dr. Preston concludes, “Given the recent, highly visible tension in the collective American community surrounding race and equity, it is critical to examine how it manifests in healthcare settings”.