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Leveling the Field

Spring 2011 | By William Meiners. Photo by Andrew Hancock.

Using the power of information as leverage, health communication professor Mohan Dutta hopes to arm African-Americans in Indiana with a knowledge base and a meeting space to improve heart health in their communities and drive research specific to their individual needs. A technology hub funded by a $1.5 million grant from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) is becoming a key tool in the grassroots effort.

Dutta and his research team are collaborating with the Indiana Minority Health Coalition and its affiliates in Lake and Marion counties throughout the three-year project. Known as CUAHD, or Communities and Universities Addressing Health Disparities (www.cuahd.org), the hub uses a Web portal environment developed at Purdue, HUBzero, that allows patients and partners to post information, collaborate online, offer feedback, and build technology-based community infrastructures.

“To understand the story of the technology hub, we need to understand the broader context of heart health among African Americans, where the inequities are tremendous,” Dutta says. “The question becomes, ‘How do we develop solutions that tie in with heart health and are actually meaningful to the community?’ African-American voices, cultural representations, and understandings are often overlooked when we address health problems.”

Dutta uses a case study discussed at one of the first advisory board meetings in Gary as an example. An African-American woman with high blood pressure asks her physician about the effects of day-to-day racism on stress and heart disease. The physician dismisses her question, saying there is no research to support such a correlation. This scenario creates a power imbalance between a patient and doctor on a playing field that is already unbalanced, according to Dutta.

Dutta says the platform of the hub is to create a collaborative space for the academic, the practitioner, and the patient to share resources, but the space will gradually transfer power to the community.

That starts with taking the large-scale clinical data published by the AHRQ and allowing the CUAHD partners and advisory board to create messages and strategies to share the information with the community.

Sometimes it is a matter of translating the research. Assumptions about how research affects communities are often wrong, Dutta says. “As researchers, we often do not think about our work as a way of listening. I envision this technology as becoming a way to listen to communities.”

For Dutta, the hub’s creation is activism that can lead to better results on a number of levels — from patient and doctor relationships to the broader work with insurance agencies and policymakers. The goal is not only to make the latest clinical research digestible, but also to chart the course of future studies.

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