Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017
As of May 2017, Professor of Health Education, Barbara Wallace, achieved a milestone via her Research Group on Disparities in Health (RGDH): 108 doctoral students graduated as fellows of the RGDH! This represents a major contribution in addressing the national shortage of minorities with doctorates. The RGDH has served as a major pipeline for producing students with not only doctoral degrees, but also professionals well-trained in conducting culturally appropriate research, while exhibiting a commitment to addressing health disparities among communities across the nation.
The RGDH was founded in January 2003 within the Department of Health and Behavior Studies at Teachers College, Columbia University. The RGDH embraces a mission focused on closing the disparities and inequities gaps in health. The RGDH spearheads culturally appropriate research projects, innovations in intervention/practice, and scholarship that establish the parameters of a new burgeoning field of health disparity reduction—as a necessary step for the elimination of health disparities. The result is that the RGDH is well positioned to address a wide variety of health disparities through the systematic application of sound ethical principles that guide the execution of the mission, ensuring high quality in our multi-faceted work. Guiding principles include a commitment to ensuring movement in the global community “From Health InEquity to Equity In Health”—the RGDH motto. Other principles guiding the RGDH mission include the importance of research, practice, and scholarship rooted in an appreciation of the larger social context in which health disparities occur.
A core goal of the RGDH is to train researchers, practitioners, and scholars so they avoid engaging in “blame-the victim” or “deficit-oriented” research, as well as an approach that tends to locate factors explaining disparities within the one suffering from inequities. The alternative promoted involves investigating and focusing upon multiple factors and their complex inter-relationships; this includes factors in the larger social context, sources of stress in the social context, adaptive strengths in the population, evidence of resiliency, and effective coping strategies in response to stress. Further, this also includes a focus on the stress associated with racism and/or oppression and the multitude of ways in which this may be expressed and made manifest. This focus is in addition to a focus on the role of demographic and other subject variables, permitting attention to potential disparities in employment, income, socioeconomic status, housing, and exposure to environmental toxins and health hazards. The result is an appreciation of a multitude of factors that go beyond locating factors related to disparities as largely individual-level phenomena—consistent with avoiding a blame-the-victim or deficit-oriented research approach. In this manner, the RGDH mission takes a refreshing approach. It is one that values a focus on conceptualizing and documenting subjects’ strengths, evidence of resiliency, and effective coping strategies. A focus on effective and adaptive coping strategies—in the face of a stressful social context—provides an important foundation of knowledge. In some cases, problem behaviors that contribute to disparities in health (i.e., sexual behavior, eating patterns, substance abuse, violent behavior, etc.) emerge as reflecting, to some degree, attempts to cope and adapt in a stressful social context. A focus can then be placed upon which attempts to cope with stress in the social context reflect maladaptive affective, behavioral, and cognitive coping responses—versus those deemed to reflect adaptive affective, behavioral and cognitive coping responses. Interventions can then be forged that foster adaptive coping.
Since 2006, the RGDH has pioneered, in particular, e-health research and interventions. This has included providing websites that feature e-health videos, as well as disseminating e-health avatar videos—all of which have been evaluated in doctoral dissertation research. Culturally appropriate e-health has been tailored to meet the needs of a variety of populations presenting disparities in health, toward the goal of promoting health and empowering populations to take action to self-determine their own health and that of members of their families/communities. Thus, among the 108 doctoral dissertations completed by fellows of the RGDH since 2003, as of May 2017, e-health intervention research projects have been especially well represented among the dissertation topics.
The photos interspersed in this article highlight the diversity among the fellows of the RGDH in recent years—while celebrating the milestone of 108 doctoral graduates of the RGDH from 2003 to 2017!