A new, national initiative based at the University of Minnesota will bring experts together from across disciplines to address complex health issues at the community level.
Earlier this fall, the U of M was selected as the national center for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Interdisciplinary Research Leaders program. As the program lead, the U of M will work to bring together a wide variety of research experts to conduct action-oriented public health studies in communities across the country, while also cultivating these experts’ roles as future leaders in interdisciplinary research. The innovative, two-year research projects in IRL aim to drive change in communities and advance policies that share a central goal — building a culture of health.
“A culture of health is about helping people live healthier, more vibrant lives now so they don’t need as much medical care down the road,” said Michael Oakes, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology and community health with the School of Public Health. “These projects make good use of translational, applied research to help create new social norms that benefit our society’s well-being, such as regular exercise, work-life balance and healthy social environments.”
Oakes codirects the IRL program along with Jan Malcolm, vice president of public affairs at Allina Health. Other partners on the program include AcademyHealth and community organizations ISAIAH and the Twin Cities Local Initiatives Support Corporation.
IRL represents the latest in an ongoing shift in public health, where researchers are expanding their focus beyond medical policy to factor in the social determinants of health, such as education, transportation, income and faith. Traditional medical treatment models, while important, fail to address the complexities that come along with these factors, Oakes said. By exploring issues at the community-level, researchers can better understand what it takes for people to embrace health-related social norms, such as exercise and work-life balance.
Racial inequities in birth outcomes
During pregnancy, the health and well-being of mothers and their babies depend not only on adequate health care, but on access to social, emotional and informational support.
In Minnesota and across the U.S., African-American women and infants are at least twice as likely as white women and infants to die around the time of childbirth. Through IRL, U of M public health researchers Rachel Hardeman, Ph.D., and Katy Kozhimannil, Ph.D., are studying ways to reduce this and other racial inequities in birth outcomes across the U.S.
Hardeman and Kozhimannil are collaborating with Rebecca Polston, founder of Minneapolis-based Roots Community Birth Center, to document the best practices for culturally centered, community-connected prenatal care and investigate how this type of care can disrupt the link between race and birth outcomes.
For its first year, the IRL program has funded 15 teams of three people each — two researchers and one community expert. The current projects fall within one of two themes: early childhood and health; and housing, community development and health. Moving forward, the program will focus on other public health themes and expand to involve 20 teams of experts per year.
Along with funding specific research projects, the program will provide leadership training to give researchers the tools to forge ahead with more interdisciplinary research after their IRL project has concluded.
“This is an ambitious project; in addition to the community-driven projects taking place now, we are setting the stage for future collaborations,” Oakes said. “My hope is, 10 or 15 years out, that we’ll have produced more interdisciplinary, community-engaged scholars who alter how we collectively approach public health challenges.”
The IRL program builds upon the U’s existing strength in transdisciplinary research, a cornerstone of its research strategic plan, Five Years Forward.