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Engaging the Community to Improve Health

Aug 22, 2023, 16:06 PM by Nyla Sauter

University of Cincinnati Cancer Center expands outreach efforts with new community groups and faculty resources to drive community-engaged research — the key to improving cancer outcomes in and around Cincinnati.

African Americans account for 42% of Cincinnati’s population and experience some of the area’s highest cancer death rates. Yet, they are underrepresented in cancer research — a situation that limits improvements in those statistics. Melinda Butsch Kovacic, PhD

“We know that people who participate in research are more likely to have better outcomes than people who don’t,” says Melinda Butsch Kovacic, MPH, PhD, associate director for community outreach and engagement at the University of Cincinnati Cancer Center. “So, if half a population doesn’t participate in research, then they’re not getting access to the high-quality care that the research brings. And that’s what we need to change.” 

The Cancer Center is working to change this scenario through community-engaged research. This involves collaborating with people in and around Cincinnati to plan, implement and evaluate research aimed at reducing cancer incidence and mortality rates and improving early detection, survival rates and quality of life. 

The keys to collaborating with the community are outreach and community groups, says Butsch Kovacic. 

Everyone Should Be Doing Outreach 

Butsch Kovacic says that while her team leads outreach efforts, they aren’t the only ones responsible for doing it. In fact, “every member of the Cancer Center should be doing outreach,” she says. 

When faculty participate in outreach efforts, they gain valuable insights into the community’s needs and challenges that they can’t get during office visits. 

“As a physician, it can be difficult to really get to know your patients during office visits,” she says. “But at community events like health fairs, it’s much more informal. You can have meaningful conversations, and people will tell you all kinds of things they might fear sharing in an office visit.” 

Outreach Resources for Faculty 

When faculty speak directly with community members, they get a better understanding of the issues around access, awareness, mistrust and fear, and can then work to remedy those. 

Butsch Kovacic’s team held four dialogue circles for faculty in 2022 to offer advice on how to conduct outreach in a way that benefits both patients and faculty. 

Community groups are another way for faculty to learn about the concerns of various populations around Cincinnati. They also serve to educate communities about cancer research to allay fears and knock down barriers to participation. 

Butsch Kovacic’s team works with Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses and an existing research advisory board of community-engaged Cancer Center members. In 2022, the Community Outreach & Engagement team began laying plans to form two new community groups specific to the Cancer Center: 

  • The Community Advisory Board (CAB) will be made up of community stakeholders, including representatives from organizations such as the American Cancer Society, who serve patients and promote cancer screenings. CAB will serve as a community voice to inform the research agenda at the Cancer Center. 
  • The Community Research Advocates Committee (CRAC) will be primarily composed of cancer survivors and family members who will learn about cancer research and research ethics and then be encouraged to advocate for research in their communities. 

“The community research advocate group will bring the voice of the community back to specific researchers,” Butsch Kovacic says. “So, if a researcher wants to be informed about a particular topic — for example, research design, study marketing and survey development — they can go to this group and get insights from the community.”
Patient rings the Cancer Bell at UC Basketball Game Ceremony