ATLANTA — The health disparities across metro Atlanta are stark. Within Fulton County alone, average life expectancy at birth ranges from a low of 64 years in the southern part of the county to a high of 87 years in the more affluent northern part of the county — a 23-year difference.
To better understand health disparities that disproportionately impact racial and ethnic minorities, a team of researchers led by Lucy Popova, an associate professor in the Georgia State University School of Public Health, has been working to identify specific health concerns affecting underserved Atlanta communities. By working to build connections with residents and to hear their concerns firsthand, the team is laying the foundation for community-engaged projects that seek to address health disparities.
The SURGE project — short for Southern Urban Research for Growth and Equity — is one of several interdisciplinary projects funded by Georgia State’s Research Innovation and Scholarly Excellence (RISE) challenge. As one of the most diverse research institutions in the nation, Georgia State is uniquely positioned to address complex societal problems through a lens of equity and access.
“The project really has been driven by community engagement and Georgia State’s focus on being a bigger part of local communities,” said Popova, of SPH’s Department of Health Policy and Behavioral Sciences. “We wanted to hear directly from the community what their most pressing health needs are, but also to hear about their strengths.”
To ensure that the voices of community members are heard, Popova and her colleagues convened a 12-member Community Advisory Board whose composition includes members from the Atlanta City Council, local community leaders and organizations involved in health and city government. The Community Advisory Board identifies priorities for research topics and recruitment methods, and offers guidance on ways to meet the project’s goals.
To gain a deeper sense of community needs and resources, the SURGE team conducted 10 focus groups with members of three different focal groups: African Americans, seniors and refugees, immigrants and migrants. Popova noted that these focus groups align with the city’s demographics and areas where Georgia State University faculty have a record of impactful research. Faculty in the SPH are leading a project focused on Alzheimer’s disease, for example, and are also leading a Prevention Research Center in Clarkston that is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The focus groups identified community strengths, such as social and built environment resources, and health challenges the communities are facing, including physical health, mental health, social issues and access to healthcare.
Popova emphasized that students played an essential role in the project. They conducted literature reviews, drafted the team’s interview guide and facilitated discussions with community members. Many of them participated in the project as part of their Applied Practice Experience, and they will be listed as co-authors on academic publications associated with the project.
“The students were full members of the team, and they were able to learn firsthand how to conduct community-based research,” Popova said.
One of the themes that emerged from the SURGE project was that community members wanted to hear about progress and results of any research they participate in. In response to this feedback, the SURGE team regularly returns to communities to share initial results through events such as ice cream socials and town halls.
Popova said the in-depth insights she and her colleagues have gained into local communities will not only inform future community-engaged projects, but also increase their ability to compete for large research grants funded by federal agencies and foundations.
“The goodwill and the relationships that have been built are such a good resource,” Popova said. “We have established a level of trust that makes continued working relationships possible.”
In addition to Popova, faculty members involved in the SURGE project are:
- Jalayne Arias, Associate Professor, School of Public Health, Department of Health Policy and Behavioral Sciences
- Dawn Aycock, Professor, Byrdine F. Lewis College of Nursing & Health Professions
- Jacque-Corey Cormier, Clinical Associate Professor, School of Public Health, Department of Health Policy and Behavioral Sciences
- Kathleen Dolan, Associate Professor, Perimeter College, Department of Cultural and Behavioral Sciences
- Jidong Huang, Professor, School of Public Health, Department of Health Policy and Behavioral Sciences
- Fei Li, Assistant Professor, Urban Studies Institute, Andrew Young School of Policy Studies
- Nicole Lynch, Associate Professor, Perimeter College, Department of Health Professions
- Ashli Owen-Smith, Associate Professor, School of Public Health, Department of Health Policy and Behavioral Sciences
- Terry Pechacek, Professor, School of Public Health, Department of Health Policy and Behavioral Sciences
- Laura Salazar, Distinguished University Professor, Department of Health Policy and Behavioral Sciences
- Claire Spears, Associate Professor, School of Public Health, Department of Health Policy and Behavioral Sciences
- Christine Stauber, Associate Professor, School of Public Health, Department of Population Health Sciences
- Scott Weaver, Research Associate Professor, School of Public Health, Department of Population Health Sciences
Students and postdoctoral researchers participating in the SURGE Project included:
- Ashley Allen, BSPH/MPH (Accelerated 4+1 program)
- Deborah Ayannusi, MPH student
- Lindsey Bush, MPH student
- Carlf Cao, MPH student
- Oluyemi Farinu, Ph.D. student, Sociology
- Jordan Foster, MPH student
- Fayja Habib, MPH student
- Corey Hopwood, MPH student
- Laitsa Jean, BSPH student
- Aisha Malone-Wheaton, MPH student
- Destiny Masha, MPH student
- Jeremiah Menyongai, MPH student
- Ashley Rose, MPH student
- Isabel Scheib, MPH student
- Thi Phuong Thao Tran, Postdoctoral Research Associate
Writer: Sam Fahmy