UChicago and Rush receive $20 million NIH grant to build health disparities research network

patient and health worker

The University of Chicago and Rush University have received a $20M, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to establish a Center for Multiple Chronic Diseases Associated with Health Disparities. The National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, a division of the NIH, awarded grants to establish 11 new Centers across the country to support clinical research to improve health in minority communities.


UChicago and Rush will use the grant to launch the Chicago Chronic Condition Equity Network (C3EN), a project that will focus research efforts on addressing health disparities for African Americans and Latinos in the Chicago region. The Network is designed to facilitate community-based research across the area, connecting existing community-based organizations and small medical practices with large academic medical institutions. It will support three clinical trials focused on reducing health problems associated with obesity and heart disease, with the flexibility to support research in other areas, including HIV, substance abuse, and social factors that affect health like crime and poverty.


“It’s really hard to do this kind of research in community organizations and small medical practices that are scattered across the city and serve different neighborhoods,” said Elbert Huang, MD, Professor of Medicine and Public Health Sciences at UChicago and Co-Director of C3EN with Elizabeth Lynch, PhD, Associate Professor of Preventive Medicine at Rush. “This really gives us the ability to build a true community research network that makes more connections across organizations at a much larger, regional scale.”


The first clinical trial, led by Arshiya Baig, MD, Associate Professor Medicine at UChicago, is called VIDA, or Virtual Diabetes Group Visits Across Health Systems. 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 also 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.


The second 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 trial is also an exercise-based research project. Keep It Movin’, or KIM, led by Lynchand Steve Rothschild, MD, Chair of Family Medicine at Rush, will tap into church communities to test an intervention to improve mobility in African Americans with functional limitations and multiple chronic illnesses. In this randomized trial of 24 Chicago-area churches, some congregations will be offered an intensive exercise class. The goal of this trial is to understand the effects of a social network who can encourage other church members to participate in the program and exercise more often.


“These are all fairly ambitious trials, in terms of their effort to reach across the city in totally different settings,” Huang said. “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.”


The Network will also establish research core teams to engage with community organizations and provide funding and research mentorship for pilot projects. The Community Engagement Core, 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, Senior Vice President for Community Health Equity at Rush and Sheila Dugan, MD, Interim Chair of Physical Medicine at Rush, will take a holistic approach to health disparities research that includes local medical systems, community health centers, public health agencies, and community-based organizations. Miller’s team will facilitate partnerships among community stakeholders and researchers to co-design research projects that incorporate input from community members.


Finally, 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, 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.


“This is all going to be hard work, but it will push us to make connections between young investigators and the communities they want to serve,” Huang said. “We want to plant the seeds for the next generation of researchers and community leaders to launch programs that will improve people’s lives in a meaningful way.”