Health Policy Research Scholars champion racial equity in public health

March 3, 2020

Jennifer Richmond and Samuel Baxter are both doctoral candidates at the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health. They’re also emerging leaders with plans to make patient care — and the public health field — more equitable.

Samuel Baxter

Samuel Baxter

Jennifer Richmond

Jennifer Richmond

Richmond studies health behavior and Baxter studies health policy and management. In 2016, they were named Health Policy Research Scholars (HPRS) by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. In late 2019, the HPRS program awarded competitive dissertation funding to both students, which supports the completion of their groundbreaking research.

Richmond’s dissertation seeks to understand and reduce racial and ethnic disparities in lung cancer treatment and develop a new measure for assessing medical mistrust among patients.

“With early-stage lung cancer, surgery is the recommended treatment for a possible cure,” she explains. “Previous research suggests Black patients are less likely to get that surgery. In my dissertation, we want to find out if patients who see nurses with special training on racial equity have better treatment outcomes.”

These nurses help patients navigate the path of cancer treatment by following up with patients who miss appointments and identifying and resolving barriers to care. This research was funded by the American Cancer Society, and Richmond is working with Samuel Cykert, MD, an adjunct professor of health policy and management at the Gillings School and professor at UNC’s School of Medicine.

A related aspect of Richmond’s work involves updating measurement tools for assessing patient trust in medical providers and the health care system. (The issue is an urgent one: Many African-American patients report feeling discriminated against and/or receiving inferior health care, which can break trust.) To address this, Richmond is creating a questionnaire that she hopes will be used to give valuable feedback on medical mistrust to researchers, providers and hospital administrators.

Baxter, meanwhile, is studying the connection between cardiovascular health and residential segregation among African-American and white young men. As he points out, most Americans live in segregated neighborhoods — and their differing environments may be tied to their likelihood of developing heart problems.

“This research is important because cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 killer of all Americans, and it’s especially prevalent among African-American men,” he says. “My study is unique because we’re only looking at young adults. It’s more common to work with middle-aged men who tend to be actively experiencing more cardiovascular disease, but my goal is to understand how the disease first takes hold and what we can do to prevent it — and prevent racial disparities.”

Baxter’s community-engaged research examines neighborhoods in Durham and Rocky Mount — urban and rural areas of North Carolina, respectively, that each have predominantly African-American communities. (He also received a $2,000 Stakeholder Engagement Voucher from the North Carolina Translational and Clinical Sciences Institute for this work.)

“Overall, this study is really about giving young men the opportunity to grow old,” he says. “If we want to improve people’s quality of life and reduce national health care costs, we have to look earlier in the adult life course and consider the role environment plays in health.”

To learn more about Baxter and Richmond’s work, read their articles on the Interdisciplinary Association for Population Health Science blog. Richmond’s piece on how medical mistrust harms Americans’ health and Baxter’s co-authored conference report on structural racism in population health research and policy were among the site’s most-read posts of 2019.


Contact the Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@unc.edu.

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