By Haley Herfurth
Understanding lifestyle differences, social factors and personal challenges when determining medical treatment for vulnerable populations have been the basis of Mona Fouad M.D.’s research career at UAB, which began more than two decades ago as a fellow in the Division of Preventive Medicine.
Fouad and her fellow researchers studying health disparities also learned the importance of understanding co-morbidity in underserved populations. For example, a woman who is due for a mammogram might also be diabetic or obese, conditions which can increase the risk of cancer, Fouad said.
“We’d go give a talk about breast cancer, but these women had other co-morbid diseases, such as high blood pressure and diabetes,” Fouad said.
Health disparities also can be compounded by other issues, including income, education, race, ethnicity or biological and environmental factors, collectively referred to as social determinants of health. Those determinants have to be understood in context for effective interventions to be developed, Fouad said.
She wanted to develop a solution to this complex challenge — to bring together researchers and clinicians who study relevant topics and combine their knowledge to discover new treatments and treatment methods. Together with Selwyn Vickers, M.D., now UAB Medicine senior vice president and dean of the UAB School of Medicine, and Edward Partridge, M.D., recently retired director of the UAB O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center, Fouad founded the UAB Minority Health & Health Disparities Research Center (MHRC) in 2002, a comprehensive research, training and community-engagement center to reduce health disparities of vulnerable populations and disadvantaged communities. Fouad still serves as its director.
“We wanted to establish a center for a more comprehensive approach — to bring other disciplines together, from the School of Medicine to the schools of Nursing and Public Health and the College of Arts and Sciences,” Fouad said. “We wanted to bring scientists together. Health disparities are not determined just by behavior; it can also be impacted by social and economic, as well as biological and environmental factors. Both a person’s DNA code and ZIP code matter.”
Since its founding, the MHRC has received more than $188 million from the NIH in health disparities-related research funding and launched a slew of programming, including training for students from minority institutions such as the Morehouse School of Medicine, Tuskegee University, Alabama Agriculture & Mechanical University, Alabama State University, Oakwood University and Stillman College.
The MRHC also sponsors a pilot program for junior faculty and postdoctoral scholars who are ready to begin research in health disparities. The center has awarded $1.2 million; for every $1 it has granted to a new researcher, $27 more has been generated in additional funding.
“We now are an established center known for health disparities research,” Fouad said. “Many faculty were working in silos. Now, they’re benefiting by working together and growing their careers.”
Throughout her career, Fouad has received tens of millions of dollars in funding and served on dozens of national and international committees, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Advisory Council on Minority Health and Health Disparities, the American Cancer Society Mid-South Division board, the Office of the Mayor’s Healthy Birmingham Task Force and the Board of the Centre for Health and Development at Staffordshire University in Stoke-on-Trent, England. She has published more than 130 peer-reviewed manuscripts, book chapters and abstracts, delivered more than 50 conference presentations and lectures and led more than 50 research projects as principal investigator.
“Dr. Fouad is a locomotive of communal success, not only driving herself relentlessly forward, but carrying many along in an ever-growing train,” said David Allison, Ph.D., former professor and associate dean in the School of Public Health.
Starting With Support
Fouad says there was no shortage of scholars who helped her grow into her career. She was hired by Albert Oberman, M.D., chair of the division in 1990, and has been mentored by Catarina Kiefe, M.D., Ph.D., Partridge and Vickers. She in turn helps mentor minority students and junior faculty through MHRC training programs and other activities on campus.
“I believe in mentoring the next generation of scientists because addressing health disparities will take more than just a few of us,” Fouad said. “We have to work together.”
“The impact of her research and its resulting interventions is felt in both rural and urban communities throughout my home state of Alabama, a reality that is particularly meaningful as I have seen firsthand the heartbreaking impact of disparate health outcomes,” Regina Benjamin, M.D., U.S. Surgeon General under President Barack Obama and founder of BayouClinic, a health clinic in Bayou La Batre, Alabama, that provides free or reduced-cost clinical services, credits Fouad with UAB’s position at the forefront of health disparities research and says that she is much more than just a researcher and advocate.
“As a mentor, she has nurtured and supported the careers of scores of young researchers, as well as developed meaningful pipeline programs on the undergraduate and graduate levels that have empowered hundreds of young people to pursue careers in the health sciences,” she said. “The impact of her research and its resulting interventions is felt in both rural and urban communities throughout my home state of Alabama, a reality that is particularly meaningful as I have seen firsthand the heartbreaking impact of disparate health outcomes.”
Vickers admires Fouad’s accomplishments, especially in an era in which women were still a minority in science and medicine and she was advised — despite her medical degree — to find another job.
“Refusing to listen to those negative voices, Fouad began to quietly revolutionize the way we study and understand cancer, especially as it disproportionately affects minority groups. Her large cohort- and community-based studies laid a foundation for ongoing research and has led to diminished deaths from this dreaded disease,” Vickers said.
Fouad believes the future of health disparities research is bright and full of collaboration, from working with engineers to understand ways the built environment and urban planning affect health to understanding how the economy can affect well-being.
“Health disparities research is understood as complex and multifaceted,” Fouad said. “From scientists working in labs to medical professionals in their clinics to people in the community, everyone is needed to help combat health disparities.”
For more on this article visit: https://www.uab.edu/reporter/people/awards-honors/item/8645-mona-fouad-is-2018-distinguished-faculty-lecturer
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