Congressional Black Caucus Panel Shares Purpose, Focus of Meharry’s Center for the Study of Social Determinants of Health

Meharry leaders discuss the Center’s reasoning, upcoming initiatives and the importance of social determinants on health outcomes


On Thursday, September 12, Meharry Medical College hosted a panel discussion at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 2019 Annual Legislative Conference titled “21stCentury Medical Care and Social Determinants in Black America.” Panelists included Meharry President and CEO Dr. James Hildreth, Senior Vice President of Health Affairs and Dean of the School of Medicine Dr. Veronica Mallett, Professor and Dean of the School of Dentistry Dr. Cherae Farmer-Dixon and Dr. Fatima Nawaz, a biomedical researcher and community member. The event was moderated by Dr. Nelson Adams, chairman of Meharry’s Board of Directors.


Panelists shared details on Meharry’s new Center for the Study of Social Determinants of Health, covering the Center’s establishment, upcoming activities and the impact of social determinants on health outcomes. Meharry leaders also shared their reasoning for accepting an independent research grant from Juul Labs, Inc. as part of establishing the Center, which will begin with studying nicotine and nicotine-related products.


“We’d like to get out in front of what already is a national issue of great importance to people in our community and research the social determinants of health related to smoking cessation and vaping,” Dr. Hildreth said during the event. “Everything we do at Meharry is driven by a singular purpose – improving the lives and health of people in disadvantaged communities. That has been the case for 143 years.”


This work, including research on tobacco, nicotine use and other socially determined health issues, will provide essential information to the public. Hildreth emphasized that without meaningful research, such as the current void with e-cigarettes, community members cannot confidently make health-related decisions.


The Center’s initial work will be rooted in information gathered from Meharry’s comprehensive listening tour launched in July. With more than 400 survey responses and a series of internal and external focus groups, key findings from the tour have been compiled and shared in an Interim Outreach Report. Though the listening tour is ongoing, conference panelists referred to gathered feedback and the concerns of community members throughout the event.


Takeaways from the initial feedback include the need to consider all aspects of an individual’s identity when assessing health, concern about e-cigarette use by people of all ages – primarily youth, the need for more information about e-cigarettes and a perceived lack of engagement by minority communities regarding these topics. The report can be viewed in its entirety here.


An engaged community member and biomedical researcher, Dr. Nawaz addressed her community’s concerns about the potential health impact of e-cigarettes. “We had seen this steep decrease in nicotine use, particularly among teens,” she said. “And now, with the introduction of e-cigarettes, we’ve seen the reverse.”


Speaking to feedback from a community focus group she organized and attended, Nawaz emphasized the importance of this dialogue. “Our group felt that this industry has taken off too quickly with too little research. There could be much greater public education,” she said.


Dean Farmer-Dixon said her chief concern is the impact of these products on oral health. After sharing a personal story of diagnosing her elderly father, who had smoked for 60-plus years, with “textbook stage 4 oral cancer” just by looking in his mouth, she reiterated her desire for concrete research on the impacts of e-cigarettes on oral health. “We can’t wait 30 years for the studies to tell us [answers],” Farmer-Dixon said. “Or 10 years or five years. Meharry has the opportunity to lead the research and come up with the data that shows the outcomes and the impacts.”


For decades, minority communities have been disproportionately affected by smoking and tobacco use, while not invited into research conversations to address these issues. The Center’s establishment to study major public health concerns, such as the use of e-cigarettes, ensures that Meharry is leading the way in essential conversations and diversifying the voices of those engaged in research.


“I am passionate about the fact that, for once in the history of this nation, a black institution is going to lead research that impacts our communities,” Hildreth said. “We’re going to be driving, not sitting on the back of the bus. I’m unapologetic about that. I know the power of research, and I’ve determined that Meharry Medical College is going to do just that for the betterment of our people.”


The center won’t stop with its initial research on tobacco and nicotine use – a health behavior heavily influenced by social determinants. Dean Mallett discussed the broad focus of the Center’s work, saying, “The number one and number two chronic illnesses that affect the community that Meharry serves and the African American community at large are hypertension and diabetes. We know the association for the worsening of those diseases with tobacco, but we’re not going to limit our research to that. We have a vision of creating a Center to focus on all the social determinants of health.”


Hildreth closed the event with a point of great importance to him – that Meharry Medical College is an academic health sciences center that happens to be a historically black college and institution. Often viewed with its status as an HBCU first, Hildreth says Meharry and other HBCUs have been expected to play by “a different set of rules” than majority institutions, impacting their research funding accessibility and participation. This initiative enables Meharry to examine countless social determinants of health – factors outside the healthcare setting that have a direct impact on health outcomes – and ensure that minorities are well represented.


“You need to know, everyone needs to know, that we went into this relationship [with Juul Labs] with our eyes wide open,” Hildreth said. “Our singular purpose is scholarship that will allow people and leaders to make informed decisions. That is what we’re going to do.”