Chicago has the fifth largest Asian-American population in the United States, with an estimated 672,400 Asian-Americans living in the Chicago metro area, according to the 2014 American Community Survey. This population accounts for about 90 percent of all Asian-Americans in the state of Illinois, and consists of 63 ethnic subgroups including Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese.
With such diversity comes a diverse set of needs, especially pertaining to health. However, many of these needs are not being met, and cancer and other health disparities among Asian-Americans continue to be a significant problem. Many residents are foreign born and have limited English proficiency. Barriers such as language, culture and health care structures that are difficult to navigate make it challenging for Asian-Americans to receive adequate screening and care.
The University of Chicago Medicine’s new Center for Asian Health Equity hopes to break down these barriers through community engagement and research. The Center is a partnership between the University of Chicago Medicine and the Asian Health Coalition, a community-based organization that has been collaborating with the university for 15 years.
“Our biggest goal is to be able to fuel interest among University researchers and students in Asian health research so we can better disseminate science on Asian health disparities to the broader community,” said Karen Kim, MD, professor of medicine, who directs the Center. “And, also to work with local public health departments to really make sure that Asian health disparities are part of the conversation when it comes to minority health.”
Kim has served as president of the Asian Health Coalition for the past five years, and has focused much of her research on cancer in Chicago’s Asian-American communities as director of the University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Office of Community Engagement and Cancer Disparities.
“We’re always battling the model minority myth that Asians are smart and educated, and therefore have no health problems,” she said. “I think that there has to be a center that allows there to be a conversation about misperceptions and stereotypes that may actually hinder the delivery of culturally competent care to these underserved communities. And, I think this Center will allow that conversation to take place.”
Edwin Chandrasekar, executive director of the Asian Health Coalition, will serve as deputy director of the Center. He has collaborated with Kim since he took his position with the Coalition five years ago.
“Dr. Kim is an advocate for Asian-American health and has really been the champion spokesperson for us many times when it comes to helping stakeholders understand what these gaps are, why they are there and what we need to do to correct them,” he said.
One of Kim’s first collaborations with the Coalition was the establishment of the Hepatitis Education & Prevention Program (HEPP) in 1997, which aims to increase screenings for Hepatitis B. Kim and her team created culturally and linguistically appropriate posters for various ethnic groups that emphasize the importance of getting tested and vaccinated to prevent liver cancer. Through their outreach efforts, they were able to educate 5,554 individuals from the Asian and African communities between October 2014 and June 2015.
Their community-based participatory research (CBPR) methods take a collaborative approach to data collection, and rely heavily on community involvement.
“We have access to the communities and the University of Chicago has access to really expert research and data,” Chandrasekar said. “The challenge though, is around access to care – giving people the information and then moving to the next step.”
The Center was recently awarded a $3.5 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to increase colorectal cancer screenings in underserved communities in Cook County. In a paper published in early 2015, Kim and Chandrasekar found that only 30 percent of foreign-born Asian-Americans in Chicago received colorectal cancer screenings, much lower than the national rate of 59 percent for the general population.
The Center for Asian Health Equity will be the only University-affiliated research center in the Midwest focused on Asian-American health. It joins three other U.S. centers, which are at Temple University, New York University and University of California-Davis.