By Eliseo J. Pérez-Stable, M.D.
Director, National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities
In 2020, we celebrated NIMHD’s 10th anniversary as an institute at the National Institutes of Health. As the year began, we could not have foreseen the disruptions and devastation that a global pandemic would cause. Although many would say we could have predicted the exacerbation of health disparities among racial and ethnic minorities and all working people with the onset of COVID-19, its impact has revealed so much about the inequities within the fabric of our nation. While the nation (and the world) grappled with how best to deal with our new public health crisis, NIMHD pressed ahead to be a part of the solutions. We expanded the breadth and depth of our work with new collaborations, research programs and resources in support of our mission to improve minority health and reduce health disparities.
Before the pandemic shut the nation down, we were fortunate to hold NIMHD’s first scientific symposium, marking our milestone year, hosting over 2,000 in-person and virtual attendees. Focusing on themes of partnership, innovation, and the role of social and health determinants in health disparities, we created a path for further exploration and research initiatives.
On the COVID-19 response, we have co-led three prominent research initiatives to address disparities:
- The Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics in Underserved Populations (RADx-UP) program is designed to enable and enhance COVID-19 testing of underserved and vulnerable populations disproportionately affected by the disease. NIH funded 69 projects in 33 states, mostly focused on populations with health disparities. The Coordination and Data Collection Center (CDCC) was funded for four years at Duke University in North Carolina and will be managed by NIMHD.
- The Social, Behavioral and Economic Consequences of the COVID-19 Pandemic is an NIH-wide initiative co-led by NIMHD, NIMH, NIA and OBSSR to support research projects on these issues. Through pooled resources from ten NIH Institutes and Centers and support from the Office of the Director, 52 projects were funded in FY 2020 and plans for new grants in FY 2021 are proceeding.
- NIH Community Engagement Alliance (CEAL) Against COVID-19 Disparities is based on the premise of trust and truth in community engaged research. Knowing that African Americans, Latinos, American Indians, and Pacific Islanders account for over half of all reported coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in the United States, it is critical that we meet these individuals and communities where they are through trusted leaders and scientifically based information for informed decision making. I co-lead this effort with Dr. Gary Gibbons, director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
Additionally, our scientific program staff quickly responded with new research initiatives seeking advances in digital healthcare, community interventions and long-term effects of disasters on health care systems serving health disparity populations. In December, we released a new initiative to address research in vaccine hesitancy, which focuses on the immediate issue of COVID-19, and will include other vaccine-preventable conditions such as influenza, hepatitis B and human papillomavirus.
In other key collaborations, the Institute is preparing for the next generation to advance novel research. We joined the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering to host the 2020 Design by Biomedical Undergraduate (DEBUT) Challenge. NIMHD awarded the Healthcare Technologies for Low-Resource Settings Prize to Rice University for their Universal Obturator for Brachytherapy, a low-cost 3D printed device to help expand treatment of late-stage cervical cancer. We also co-lead a new NIH Common Fund program called Faculty Institutional Recruitment for Sustainable Transformation (FIRST) program, which invests in research faculty committed to promoting diversity and inclusive excellence in their respective institutions.
During our anniversary year we also launched activities in new research areas. Maternal health disparities are impacting African American and American Indian/Alaska Native communities at staggeringly high rates, where women in these groups are respectively 3.2 and 2.3 times more likely to die from pregnancy-related mortality than their White counterparts. New research is underway through six R01 grants co-funded with NHLBI and the NIH Office of Research on Women’s Health. In September we hosted The Role of Work in Health Disparities in the United States Scientific Workshop, to cover novel approaches and facilitate discussions on multilevel interventions to investigate work-based health disparities. This two-day virtual event engaged over 1,000 participants. Our Director’s Seminar Series continued with a lecture by Dr. Ricardo Muñoz in October and by David Williams in December. We look forward to hosting Dr. L. Ebony Boulware, whose presentation was postponed due to the pandemic, on February 4.
Research program collaborations across NIH also led to the development of the PhenX Social Determinants of Health (SDOH) Assessments Collection, which promotes the use of standard individual and structural measures of social determinants for health disparities research facilitating collection, use and analysis of research data for more common interpretation, use and potential implementation.
The social unrest we experienced in 2020 due to the structural inequities that have perpetuated racial, ethnic and socioeconomic disparities led to monumental response by Americans from all backgrounds. For me, this shows promise towards equity, particularly health equity for all. I added my voice to the conversations through a blog post mid-year. Demonstrations across the country show that many in America envision a country in which all populations have an equal opportunity to live long, healthy and productive lives. NIMHD is championing this promise through our Envisioning Health Equity Art Challenge which is open through February 5, 2021. I hope you will join us by submitting your interpretation of this vision.