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NIH awards $2.5 million for health-care study of ethnic minorities

by Kathleen O'Neil

Two USC occupational therapy researchers have been awarded a $2.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study how minority patients can improve the care they receive from doctors.

Previous research has documented health care disparities for minorities independent of socio-economic status, but few have suggested strategies to help those patients improve their outcomes, said occupational therapy professor Mary Lawlor.

Lawlor and Cheryl Mattingly, also a professor of occupational therapy, will be drawing upon their previous research in their next study of how patients and doctors establish relationships and communicate with each other, and how that affects their treatment.

“Families who care for children with diseases and disabilities need to learn about medical culture, and what a doctor needs to know about them,” Lawlor said.

Likewise, medical professionals need to consider what other issues a family is dealing with besides one family member’s illness, and how much a caregiver can handle.

The earlier research done by Lawlor, Mattingly, anthropologist Lanita Jacobs-Huey and a team of other researchers, followed African-American families who had a child with a chronic illness or disability and documented each of their health-care encounters over an eight-year period.

“One of the things we’ve learned is that there’s a need to rethink cultural competence in health care systems,” Lawlor said. “We now recognize that while practitioners are working with diverse groups, there’s great heterogeneity within those groups.”

To be most effective, medical providers need to identify early on a patient’s cultural definition of good care.

Part of the group’s research is studying the stories that the patients use to describe their illnesses and its impact on their lives, Lawlor said.

By following patients for a long time, the researchers hope to identify how an earlier medical encounter, such as a scary surgery as a child, will impact a young adult’s attitude toward medical treatment.

The best care would allow a child’s life not to revolve around their illness or disability, Lawlor said, but instead focus on being a child.

NIH awards $2.5 million for health-care study of ethnic minorities

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