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9th Annual Women’s Health Research Day keynote address highlights disparity

The health-care access gap is widening rather than closing, and in many ways, that disparity can be traced to economic inefficiency, the keynote speaker told participants in the 9th Annual VCU Women’s Health Research Day, sponsored by the VCU Institute for Women’s Health.

“It’s about money,” Dr. PonJola Coney, senior associate dean for faculty affairs at the School of Medicine and Director of the VCU Center on Health Disparities, said April 24 in an address.

Dr. PonJola Coney says economic factors play a large role in health disparity.

Dr. PonJola Coney

Many factors contribute to disparity, including economic, geographic, racial and ethnic barriers, she said. But it is the economics of poverty that can profoundly affect whether a person lives a rural or urban lifestyle, whether they can seek higher education and whether they have access to health care and information about healthy choices.

Income is often the factor that dictates how equal health care can be.

“And that’s going to be the root of the problem,” Dr. Coney said.

The disparity is especially telling for women in certain settings. Researchers see a higher rate of unintended injury and suicide among women in rural settings, and women are also more likely to smoke and have higher incidences of disease, including cervical cancer, she said.

“Effective health care depends on health literacy,” Dr. Coney said. “It’s important that the patients are able to interpret what you want them to do.”

At its core, she said, disparity looks like this: An economically disadvantaged 60-year-old can have the health profile of a well-off 80-year-old. “Income is clearly linked to health,” she said.

In 2011, more than 48 million people in the United States did not have health care. Young people between the ages of 18 and 34 accounted for more than a quarter of that total. During that year, more than 50 percent of the American population had health insurance because their employers provided it.

During her address, Dr. Coney cited the research of a Harvard economist who studies the economic value of health care. David Cutler, an economic adviser to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barrack Obama and author of “Your Money or Your Life,” has concluded that additional spending on health care is worth the cost.

“So you spend more to keep people healthy,” Dr. Coney said. For example, “living longer – and better – allows workers to be more productive.”

Some studies have indicated that simplifying the health-care system and reducing waste could actually reduce health-care costs by billions of dollars, Dr. Coney said.

More help can come from National Institute for Minority Health and Health Disparity,  which was an outgrowth of the Office of Research on Minority Heath, established in 1990. The institute gave birth to search, outreach programs and training throughout the U.S. During her tenure as dean at Meharry Medical College, Dr. Coney used a National Institutes of Health grant to establish an EXPORT Center to help engage the community on issues related to health disparity and access to care.

Still, Dr. Coney says closing the gap between those who have access to health care and those who don’t has proven to be a slow process.  “There is little progress in eliminating (disparity),” she said.

Women’s Health Research day events were held at the Jonah L. Larrick Student enter on the MCV campus. Other speakers included:

Dr. Rosalie Corona, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology, who described studies into how Latino families communicate about sensitive topics, such as adolescent sex.

Her work has also delved into body whether body image can affect a teenager’s decision-making.

Dr. Edmond P. Wickham III, an associate professor in the Department of Internal Medicine,

is studying insulin resistance among women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, a hormonal disorder that affects roughly 1 in 15 women. Untreated, it can lead to increased chances of diabetes and heart disease.

The event was chaired  by Dr. Susan Kornstein, executive director of the VCU Institute for Women’s Health.   Poster awards were also given for junior investigators in several areas. In addition, the following two awards were given, which included a $1,000 prize for the recipient to present their work at a national meeting.

  • Elizabeth Ann Fries Young Investigator Award: Akimitsu Yamada, a post doctoral student in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Massey Cancer Center – Human breast cancers that co-express sphingosine kinase 1 and ABCC1 have significant shorter disease free survival. The award was created in memory of a VCU psychology professor who served as co-director of cancer prevention and control at the VCU Massey Cancer Center. She died in 2005, and the award given in her name goes each year to a young researcher who shows promise for improving women’s health.
  • Building Interdisciplinary Bridges in Women’s Health Research: Victoria Menzies, an assistant professor in the School of Nursing – Unique Cytokine Signature in the Serum of Women with Fibromyalgia. The award honors the poster that best demonstrated interdisciplinary investigator collaboration in women’s health.

Other winners included Aileen Garcia-Vargas, a student in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology for the basic science category, and Kellie Carlyle Palazzolo, an assistant professor and graduate program director in the Department of Social and Behavior Health for socio-behavioral category.

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