Rush, UChicago Forming Health Equity Research Network

$20M grant awarded by NIH to address chronic diseases related to unequal access

Health Equity October 22, 2021
Patient and provider at church health event

Rush University and the University of Chicago are establishing a center that will support research to address health disparities among Blacks and Latinos in the Chicago region.

With a $20 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health, UChicago and Rush will launch the Chicago Chronic Condition Equity Network to facilitate community-academic partnerships to conduct research to improve health equity. The NIH’s National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities awarded 11 grants to create Centers for Multiple Chronic Diseases Associated with Health Disparities across the country.

The collaborative project will benefit from both institutions’ strengths in research and public health. At Rush, health equity is a strategic goal supported by the Rush BMO Institute for Health Equity. The institute coordinates health equity initiatives, including community-partnered research, across Rush University System for Health.

The UChicago-Rush project will connect community organizations, health centers and small medical practices with researchers at academic medical institutions, said Elizabeth Lynch, PhD, associate professor of preventive medicine at Rush Medical College and co-director of the Chicago Chronic Condition Equity Network. 

“The goal of our community-based research network is to give a voice to the people most affected by the chronic health conditions that result from unequal access to resources,” Lynch said. “Community engagement is crucial to finding effective solutions.”

To start, the Chicago Chronic Condition Equity Network will support three clinical trials focused on reducing health problems associated with obesity and heart disease. 

Lynch is leading one of the clinical trials with colleague Steve Rothschild, MD, chair of Family Medicine at Rush. The Keep It Movin’ trial will test an intervention to improve mobility in African Americans who have functional limitations and multiple chronic illnesses. The randomized trial will involve 24 churches in which some congregations will be offered an intensive exercise class. The goal is to understand the effects of a social network that can encourage other church members to participate in the program and exercise more often.

The clinical trial will tap into the Alive Church Network, a long-standing coalition of African American pastors, church members and public health researchers who are working to improve the health of Chicago’s underserved communities. Lynch and several Rush colleagues have worked with the church network on other NIH-funded health interventions, including those to reduce risks of cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome. In addition to the movement research, Lynch continues to lead NIH-funded initiatives with the Alive Church Network to reduce high blood pressure and to bring COVID-19 testing and health information to Chicago’s testing “deserts” on the South and West sides.

A second exercise-based clinical trial, led by Megan Huisingh-Scheetz, MD, assistant professor of medicine at UChicago, will use an Amazon Alexa-based voice assistant called EngAGE to deliver exercise programming to older adults in their home to reduce frailty. Huisingh-Scheetz has already developed and tested the system with a pilot group of residents at an assisted living facility. The new trial will provide the system to homebound, older African American patients with multiple chronic conditions and their caregivers to test its effectiveness versus a control group that receives paper handouts with exercise routines.

The third clinical trial, led by Arshiya Baig, MD, associate professor of medicine at UChicago, is called the Virtual Diabetes Group Visits Across Health Systems (VIDA). Instead of visiting a doctor and attending diabetes educations classes individually, patients in this trial will have combined, online doctor visits and classes with a group of other patients. The research will take place across two Chicago medical systems: Access Community Health, a network of federally qualified health centers, and Advocate Health. The combination of multiple patient populations with different diabetes care options will give researchers unique insight into how the effects of the virtual group visits are affected by their setting.

“These are all fairly ambitious trials, in terms of their effort to reach across the city in totally different settings,” said Chicago Chronic Condition Equity Network Co-director Elbert Huang, MD, professor of medicine and public health sciences at UChicago. “But they all share the same themes of social connection, to get people to encourage their friends and family to make behavior changes that will improve their health.”

In addition to the clinical trials, the project will establish research core teams to engage with community organizations and provide funding and research mentorship for pilot projects: 

  • The Community Engagement Core will facilitate partnerships among community stakeholders and researchers to co-design research projects that incorporate input from community members. Led by Doriane Miller, MD, professor of medicine and director of the Center for Community Health and Vitality at UChicago, along with David Ansell, MD, MPH, senior vice president for community health equity at Rush, and Sheila Dugan, MD, interim chair of physical medicine at Rush, the core team will take a holistic approach to health disparities research that includes local medical systems, community health centers, public health agencies, and community-based organizations.
  • The Investigator Development Core will award six grants of up to $50,000 per year to early-stage investigators to conduct pilot projects addressing health disparities in chronic conditions, prioritizing those working with community organizations. The awards will be determined by a council composed of community leaders and researchers who meet regularly to identify promising projects.

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