Vital Record Your source for health news from the Texas A&M Health Science Center 2015-04-16T19:32:49Z Rae Lynn Mitchell <![CDATA[Center for Community Health Development awarded funding to evaluate American Heart Association national program]]> 2015-04-16T19:32:49Z 2015-04-16T19:29:06Z The American Heart Association (AHA) has selected the Center for Community Health Development (CCHD) at the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health to lead the evaluation of a $3 million chronic disease prevention initiative]]>
Kenneth McLeroy, Ph.D.

Kenneth McLeroy, Ph.D.

The American Heart Association (AHA) has selected the Center for Community Health Development (CCHD) at the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health to lead the evaluation of a $3 million chronic disease prevention initiative.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Division of Community Health awarded the AHA funding to work with selected AHA affiliates who will organize community stakeholders to implement and disseminate evidence- and practice-based programs aimed at chronic disease prevention and the reduction of health disparities. AHA will identify approximately 300 affiliates over three years who will lead this effort across the nation.

Regents and Distinguished Professor Kenneth McLeroy, Ph.D., co-director of CCHD, will serve as principal investigator of the project, and Whitney Garney, Ph.D., will oversee the daily evaluation activities.

Whitney Garney, Ph.D.

Whitney Garney, Ph.D.

McLeroy is an expert in program evaluation, having served as principal investigator on several large evaluation projects throughout his career.

“These programs have the potential to effectively address chronic disease prevalence across our nation,” said McLeroy. “We are hopeful that our evaluation will provide the proper feedback for producing more effective chronic disease prevention programs.”

Chronic diseases and conditions such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, obesity and arthritis are the leading cause of death and disability in the United States and are responsible for seven out of 10 deaths among Americans each year.

CCHD will evaluate the three-year project to assess collaboration, capacity and awareness of AHA affiliates to implement strategies that promote chronic disease prevention.

“I am honored and excited to be a part of this nationwide project and to partner with a respected organization like the American Heart Association,” said Garney.

Both McLeroy and Garney have begun working with their AHA partners and are currently in the preliminary planning stages of the evaluation.

Jennifer Fuentes <![CDATA[Adolescents most at risk with e-cigarettes, yet teen usage soars]]> 2015-04-16T19:20:42Z 2015-04-16T18:42:02Z Teenagers are among the fastest growing groups of electronic cigarette consumers in the U.S. They may also be the most vulnerable to the devices’ physical and psychological side effects, according to experts from Texas A&M University Baylor College of Dentistry’s Tobacco Treatment Services]]>

About 660,000 high school students reported using e-cigarettes in 2013, but in 2014, that number increased to about 2 million, according to a study recently published by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Making this information even more troubling are recent studies showing that teens may also be the most vulnerable to the devices’ physical and psychological side effects.

Even though e-cigarettes don’t contain tobacco, the battery-powered devices do deliver nicotine in aerosol form. “Nicotine’s addictive properties are a risk for any age group, but with adolescents, the stakes are even higher,” says Dr. K. Vendrell Rankin, a professor and associate chair in public health sciences who is director of Texas A&M University Baylor College of Dentistry’s Tobacco Treatment Services.

05experts-ecigarette-2For teens, mental health as well as key emotional and cognitive systems are at stake.

“Major cognitive functions and attention performance are still in the process of developing during adolescence,” Rankin says. “Nicotine increases the risk of developing psychiatric disorders and lasting cognitive impairment and is associated with disturbances in working memory and attention. Reliance on nicotine to manage negative emotions and situations impairs the development of coping skills.”

In addition to affecting the emotional and cognitive development of teens, nicotine is highly addictive. In fact, the younger a person is when they begin using nicotine, the more likely they are to become addicted and the stronger the addiction may become. According to the American Lung Association, of adults who smoke, 68 percent began smoking at age 18 or younger.

Nicotine use very quickly escalates into addiction, even when dealing with tobacco-free, odorless “vaping” associated with e-cigarettes. That’s because nicotine in any form triggers the release of neurotransmitters such as adrenaline and dopamine, which dramatically impacts a number of body systems. Dopamine floods the brain, and nicotine cravings increase.

“Everybody has a certain amount of nicotine receptors in the brain,” Rankin says. “When you start smoking, vaping or supplying nicotine to them, they multiply. If you stop smoking or vaping, the receptors don’t go away.”

In other words, the younger users are when they try or start using nicotine, the more receptors they will have and the more they may struggle with nicotine cravings throughout  their lives. It’s concerning news for the 1.78 million teens who tried e-cigarettes in 2012, according to the CDC.

E-cigarette companies currently advertise their products to a broad audience that includes 24 million youths, and proposed U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations would not limit e-cigarette marketing. Bold marketing tactics, celebrity endorsements, endless flavor choices and a plethora of online videos instructing users on how to mix their own e-cigarette liquid, or “e-juice,” have only added fuel to the fire. There currently are no federal laws in place to restrict minors from purchasing e-cigarettes.

There is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. In April, the FDA released the details of a proposal to extend its tobacco authority to e-cigarettes, including minimum age and identification restrictions intended to prevent sales to minors. A final ruling is slated for summer 2015.

In the meantime, many Texas cities have set their own regulations and ordinances banning the sale of e-cigarettes to minors. Any e-cigarette regulation in Texas will have to occur city by city, Rankin says, since the state doesn’t have comprehensive smoke-free laws.

“I don’t think e-cigarettes are going to drop off,” Rankin says. “It’s the newest — or most popular — kid on the block right now.”

Ellen Davis <![CDATA[New method for cleaning hospital rooms could help stop the spread of ‘superbugs’]]> 2015-04-14T18:52:41Z 2015-04-13T22:20:38Z When a typical 100-bed hospital sees roughly 10-20 hospital-acquired infections a year it's no wonder "superbugs" like CRE or MRSA are top of mind. New study shows that manual disinfection combined with UV light can kill more than 90 percent of infection causing bacteria]]>
Germ infested hospital bed

Surfaces in hospital rooms such as tray tables, bedrails, call buttons and grab bars can be reservoirs for bacteria.

Can a robot clean a hospital room just as well as a person?

According to Chetan Jinadatha, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine and chief of infectious diseases at the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System in Temple, that is indeed the case.

While it may sound more like science fiction than real life, Jinadatha’s research that looks at the effectiveness of a germ-zapping robot to help clean hospital rooms could hold the key to preventing the spread of “superbugs” – in turn, saving countless dollars and, most importantly, lives.

Keeping hospital rooms clean is important to prevent the spread of infections from one patient to another. Surfaces in hospital rooms such as tray tables, bedrails, call buttons and grab bars can be reservoirs for bacteria such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which can be difficult to treat, and in some cases, fatal.

“A typical 100-bed hospital sees about 10-20 hospital-acquired infections a year,” Jinadatha says. “Our goal is to get to zero infections.”

In addition to the human toll, hospitals now have a financial reason to reduce hospital-acquired infections: beginning in 2017, the federal government will dramatically reduce Medicare payments to hospitals that exceed incidences of certain conditions, such as hospital-acquired infections.

Since the current method of cleaning hospital rooms relies heavily on housekeeping staff, who often have a high turnover rate, Jinadatha has focused his research on using technology to prevent hospital-acquired infections. In particular, he is studying the effectiveness of a pulsed xenon ultraviolet (UV) light system that was developed in Texas. Jinadatha has been among the first to study the system since it was introduced in 2011.

The device – which Jinadatha admits bears a striking resemblance to the fictional robot in Star Wars known as R2-D2 – has a large saucer-shaped head on top of a column that rises up to reveal a bulb filled with xenon gas. When the system is switched on, high-voltage electricity passes through the bulb and releases a spectrum of UV light that binds to the DNA of organisms and kills them.

Last year, Jinadatha published a study that compared the effectiveness of manual disinfection alone to manual disinfection plus the use of UV light. This study found that manual cleaning plus UV light killed more than 90 percent of the bacteria, compared to 70 percent with manual cleaning alone. Of particular note was the fact that manual disinfection plus UV light killed 99 percent of the bacteria that cause MRSA.

Jinadatha’s latest study, which was published earlier this year in the American Journal of Infection Control, looked at the effectiveness of UV light disinfection by itself. This study found that in just 12 minutes, the xenon UV light system cut the amount bacteria in the room by about 70 percent – roughly the same level of effectiveness as manual disinfection.

Jinadatha stresses that he would never recommend that a hospital use the UV light system by itself, but he believes it does have value as a “safety net” to kill bacteria that traditional cleaning may miss. Currently, the system is being used in 40 VA hospitals across the country and about 200 private hospitals. He predicts it will eventually become standard equipment at all hospitals.

“There is no one thing that will take away the problem of hospital-acquired infections, but we are slowly chipping away at it,” he says.

Rae Lynn Mitchell <![CDATA[Texas A&M releases CEO Cancer Gold Standard Accreditation Guidebook]]> 2015-04-13T14:20:04Z 2015-04-13T13:57:23Z The Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service have produced the Going for the Gold: Achieving CEO Cancer Gold Standard™ Accreditation Guidebook to help organizations seek accreditation and reduce the risk of cancer for their employees and families]]>
CEO Cancer Gold Standard Seal

Organizations earn Gold Standard accreditation through reducing cancer risk in the workplace.

In an effort to help organizations seek accreditation and reduce the risk of cancer for their employees and families, the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service have produced the Going for the Gold: Achieving CEO Cancer Gold Standard™ Accreditation Guidebook.

Eradicating cancer is the goal of the CEO Cancer Gold Standard™, a workplace wellness initiative. The CEO Roundtable on Cancer, a nonprofit organization of chief executive officers of major U.S. companies founded by former President George H.W. Bush, developed this initiative in collaboration with the National Cancer Institute.

“I am very proud that Aggies initiated this guidebook, which will become an important tool for companies wanting to be part of the CEO Gold Standard,” said Bush.

“Beginning with President and Mrs. Bush, we thank everyone in Aggieland, and notably the authors of this valuable guide, for creating such a clear, comprehensive and inviting roadmap that will encourage employers to work with and on behalf of their employees to lower the risk of cancer, detect it early, and ensure access to high-quality care,” said Dr. Martin Murphy, Chief Executive Officer, CEO Roundtable on Cancer.

To earn Gold Standard accreditation, an organization must establish programs to reduce cancer risk by eliminating tobacco use; encouraging physical activity; promoting healthy diet and nutrition; detecting cancer at its earliest stages; and providing access to quality care, including participation in clinical trials. The Gold Standard calls for organizations to evaluate their health benefits and corporate culture and take extensive, concrete actions in areas of health and wellness to reduce the risk of cancer in the workplace.

The accreditation process resulted in the creation of a very active Health and Wellness Committee at the Texas A&M School of Public Health and a strong partnership with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.

“Going beyond our experience, we are now ready to share lessons learned more broadly within the Health Science Center, Texas A&M University and The Texas A&M University System at large. The health and wellness activities outlined in this guidebook can have a great benefit to Aggie employees and their families,” said co-author and Regents and Distinguished Professor Marcia Ory, Ph.D, of the Texas A&M School of Public Health.

“Strongly committed to promoting a healthy workforce, AgriLife Extension Service exemplifies an organization that supports the values of the CEO Cancer Gold Standard,” said co-author Ninfa Pena-Purcell, Ph.D., of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. “This most recently was exemplified by our launching wellness programs across all agency offices in Texas.”

The Cancer Alliance of Texas (CAT) introduced the Texas A&M School of Public Health to the opportunity to become CEO Gold Standard Accredited and was extremely helpful during the process.

“We will be sharing the guidebook with other CAT members and providing guidance on how state-wide organizations might seek accreditation,” said co-author Samuel Towne, Jr., Ph.D., assistant professor at the Texas A&M School of Public Health and a CAT member.

Deborah Vollmer Dahlke, Dr.P.H. who is the past chair of CAT, assisted in the development and review of the guidebook in terms of its relevance to organizations committed to cancer prevention and control throughout Texas.

Zoe Clement <![CDATA[Cellphone bans across the U.S.]]> 2015-04-13T16:44:34Z 2015-04-13T13:15:49Z Texas is one of only five states in the U.S. that is without a full texting ban for all drivers. Studies have come to prove that having a texting ban greatly eliminates crash-related hospitalizations]]>

Learn more about bans against texting and driving and how it’s reducing the amount of crash-related hospitalizations.


Ellen Davis <![CDATA[Speeding discoveries from bench to bedside]]> 2015-04-14T19:00:36Z 2015-04-10T20:59:26Z Biomedical research should ultimately benefit patients. That’s the driving force behind the work being done by LauraLee Hughes and her staff in the Texas A&M Health Science Center’s Office of Technology Translation (OTT)]]>

Biomedical research should ultimately benefit patients. That’s the driving force behind the work being done by LauraLee Hughes and her staff in the Texas A&M Health Science Center’s Office of Technology Translation (OTT).

The office was created to facilitate the translation of research from bench to bedside. It handles everything from invention disclosures and patent strategies to grant and contract strategies for faculty and start-up companies, target product profiles, and even preclinical and clinical development plans.

LauraLee Hughes

LauraLee Hughes, director of the Texas A&M Health Science Center Office of Technology Translation

“Most researchers – myself included – don’t even know the language of tech transfer, much less how the process works, so having a resource that is experienced in this arena, and able to shepherd the process for us is absolutely critical to translating our research advances to the clinic and marketplace,” said Cheryl Walker, Ph.D., director of the Texas A&M Health Science Center Institute of Biosciences and Technology (IBT) in Houston. “After all, that is why scientists do what they do.”

The Office of Technology Translation works with TAMHSC faculty and staff to actively identify new intellectual property and facilitate the development and commercialization of discoveries arising from their research. The office coordinates with the Texas A&M System’s Technology Commercialization (TTC) office for traditional academic technology transfer activities, such as patent protection and licensing, yet provides dedicated resources that go beyond those available through TTC to promote an entrepreneurial culture and address the unique needs of biomedical researchers within a health-related institution.

“We offer the specialized expertise necessary to advance the novel technologies coming from a rapidly emerging, research-intensive, innovation-driven institution such as A&M Health Science Center,” Hughes said. “This enables us to maximize the potential for translational research, sponsored research with industry, and ultimately commercialization.”

The Office of Technology Translation also helps researchers submit proposals to state and federal programs that fund translational research, such as the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), the Small Business Innovation Research program (SBIR) and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), among others.

Hughes’ background perfectly aligns with her current role. She holds bachelor’s degrees in both biochemistry and genetics and a master’s degree in biotechnology – all from Texas A&M University. She previously worked for The Texas A&M System’s Technology Commercialization Office and played a key role in helping The Texas A&M System land a $285.6 million contract to create the Texas A&M Center for Innovation in Advanced Development and Manufacturing (CIADM).

Hughes joined the health science center in 2013 when she was drawn by the opportunity to further the institution’s goal of defining new frontiers in biomedical science.

“LauraLee is one of the smartest, most energetic and effective young professionals with whom I have ever worked,” Giroir said.

Since inception of the OTT, Hughes has focused on developing resources to support faculty efforts related to translational research and intellectual property, and meeting with faculty members to make them aware of the role her office plays in helping advance their discoveries from bench to bedside. She also recently was appointed as an instructor at the IBT, which will enable her to have a more direct role in mentoring students and providing educational opportunities to drive innovation and commercialization.

“Many faculty members may not even realize they have something with commercial potential,” Hughes said. “We want faculty members to be freed to create and innovate, and make clear pathways that are accessible to them without distracting them from their primary emphasis on research and teaching.”

For technologies that do have commercial potential, the Office of Technology Translation works with the faculty members and TTC to make sure their intellectual property (IP) is protected. For example, Hughes is currently working with Walker to protect the intellectual property for a tumor suppressor gene that can be targeted to treat endometrial cancer — a discovery for which a provisional patent application was recently filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

Once intellectual property is protected, Hughes and her staff can pursue opportunities to commercialize the discovery either by licensing it to an outside company or starting a new company. The office has a licensee for an antibody Walker has developed that could be used as a research and diagnostic tool. Additionally, the team is helping Carolyn Cannon, M.D., Ph.D., in the College of Medicine, on plans to protect IP and commercialize a novel treatment for childhood respiratory diseases that she has developed.

For faculty members who already have start-up companies, the Office of Technology Translation can serve as a resource for technical and business-related expertise that will help guide faculty members through the process and increase the commercial potential of their technologies.

As the OTT continues to expand, Hughes also is playing an important role in helping the health science center recruit new faculty members.

“Many new faculty members we are trying to recruit are highly entrepreneurial,” Hughes said. “They either have aspirations to start a company or already have a company that they want to relocate to Texas. Being able to attract entrepreneurial scientists enables the health science center to fulfill its mission of improving human health and quality of life across the state, around the nation, and throughout the world.”

Ellen Davis <![CDATA[Women’s Health in Neuroscience Program fills a critical research gap]]> 2015-04-14T18:52:16Z 2015-04-10T14:47:56Z The need for more basic research on how neurological diseases differ in men and women is what prompted researchers from the Texas A&M College of Medicine to start the Women’s Health in Neuroscience program. The ultimate goal of the program is to learn how to exploit these differences to develop new therapies. ]]>

In his original career as a pharmacist, Samba Reddy says he frequently encountered female patients with epilepsy who complained that they had more seizures during their menstrual periods. He also noticed that neurologists prescribed the same medications for these women as they prescribed for men – and that the medications were largely ineffective.

After returning to school and earning a Ph.D. in pharmacology, Reddy set out to discover a better way to treat these women. In addition to developing new treatments, he is trying to understand the biological reasons why epilepsy affects men and women of physician and patient looking at brain image

Reddy is among the faculty members in the Texas A&M College of Medicine who are involved with the Women’s Health in Neuroscience program, which was started by Farida Sohrabji, Ph.D., associate chair of the Department of Neuroscience and Experimental Therapeutics. Sohrabji saw a need for more basic research on how neurologic diseases such as epilepsy differ in men and women. The ultimate goal of the program is to learn how to exploit these differences to develop new therapies.

Reddy suspects that women are more prone to seizures around the time of menstruation – a condition called catamenial epilepsy – because the level of a key neurosteroid called allopregnanolone falls around this time.

“Because there is a hormonal component to this disorder, many neurologists don’t even know it exists,” Reddy says. “We are fundamentally ignoring the changes in brain receptors that women are going through.”

Reddy is developing a new paradigm for treating women with catamenial epilepsy that takes into consideration these hormonal changes. A key difference in this therapy, which he calls neurosteroid replacement therapy, is that women only have to take anti-epileptic drugs on a few key days each month rather than every day.

Reddy’s research on how hormonal cycles impact medication could have implications for other drugs that are given to women. For example, he says, the most commonly used sleeping medications, such as benzodiazepines, may work differently at various phases of the menstrual cycle. Migraine headaches offer another potential opportunity to expand Reddy’s research as those that occur around the time of menstruation are often harder to control with conventional medications.

Seizures and migraines aren’t the only afflictions that could factor into the battle of the sexes. Sohrabji’s research focuses on how a person’s age and sex impact their recovery from stroke.

“There are big differences in infarct volume (the amount of brain tissue that dies) as a result of age and sex,” Sobrabji explains. “Young women have the best response – with a very small loss of brain tissue – but males and older women have terrible responses.”

Sohrabji is particularly interested in trying to find a way to help middle-aged women recover from stroke.

“We are learning the hard way with stroke that drugs will work in one sex or the other, in one age group or the other, and in one ethnic group or the other, but there won’t be a one-size-fits-all treatment,” she says.

Many women who have strokes also develop post-stroke depression, and Sohrabji’s lab is one of only a few in the country that are studying this correlation in a pre-clinical model. Her team is trying to see if there are markers in the blood that will predict who is likely to develop post-stroke depression.

Sohrabji also is working with Reddy to study sex and age differences in post-stroke epilepsy. Twenty to thirty percent of people who have strokes develop epilepsy, and many of these patients are women. Sohrabji and Reddy are developing an animal model that will allow them to seek early markers for post-stroke epilepsy and test possible interventions.

“We can’t do anything about the stroke, but we can at least stop something else that is coming,” Reddy says.

A key goal of the Women’s Health in Neuroscience program is to train the next generation of scientists, who will further advance research into gender-specific medicine.

Min Jung Park, Ph.D., is among the postdoctoral research associates who are involved with the program, specifically the post-stroke epilepsy study.

“Like many other scientists, I had not considered gender as a biological variable,” Park says. “The Women’s Health in Neuroscience program offers me a unique opportunity to study how diseases present differently in men and women and apply those findings toward developing new drugs that are specific to women.”

Park notes that in the past, the dosage of drugs administered to women was either scaled up or down depending on their body weight, without giving consideration to the fact that there were physiological differences.

“I am very proud to be part of a program that has set out to fill this critical research gap,” Park says.

Ellen Davis <![CDATA[School of Public Health leading multi-state initiative to reduce childhood obesity along the U.S.-Mexico border]]> 2015-04-14T18:52:02Z 2015-04-08T15:49:13Z Joe Sharkey, Ph.D., M.P.H, has received a $4.9 million grant that targets populations of Mexican heritage in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona]]>

Joe Sharkey, Ph.D., M.P.H, has spent nearly a decade trying to improve the lives of children and families living along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Now, Sharkey plans to take his work to a new level with the help of a five-year, $4.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Sharkey will lead a team from Texas, New Mexico and Arizona who plan to implement a family-centered approach to reducing the incidence of childhood obesity along the border through research, education and extension. Levels of childhood obesity in this area are reaching “epidemic proportions,” according to studies conducted by the United States-México Border Health Commission.

photo of a colonies

Childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions in areas such as the colonias located along the Texas-Mexico border.

“The burden of obesity disproportionately affects marginalized populations, such as children of Mexican heritage who reside in impoverished communities along the U.S.-Mexico border,” said Sharkey, who is professor of health promotion and community health sciences in the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health and founding director of the Program for Research and Outreach-Engagement on Nutrition and Health Disparities.

The program will focus on areas with the least amount of resources, such as the more than 2,300 colonias scattered along the Texas-Mexico border from El Paso to Brownsville. Colonias are unregulated neighborhoods that have sprung up in former agricultural areas that have exhausted their usefulness for growing crops. Families living in these areas have limited access to affordable, healthy foods and physical activity opportunities. Public health officials trying to improve the quality of life in these areas face numerous barriers such as language, level of education, poverty, inaccessibility, and trust of outsiders. The program will focus on Hidalgo County (Texas), Luna and Otero counties (New Mexico), and Santa Cruz County (Arizona).

“Obesity is a very complex issue in these areas,” Sharkey said. “It can be hard to be physically active when it is 100 degrees outside, there are dogs running loose and there are gangs. Parents may be keeping their kids inside the house because it is safer. You can’t just take a program from somewhere else and drop it in there.” As a result, the team will focus on addressing environmental context and culture of the areas.

Sharkey and other members of the research team plan to develop and test a promotora-driven model called Salud Para Usted y Su Familia (Health for You and Your Family). Promotoras are members of the community who are trusted by residents, serve as a cultural bridge, and have special training in outreach and health education. Sharkey said he was encouraged to start the program by promotoras themselves.

“We have been doing research along the border for years,” Sharkey said. “They wanted to know how we can change things.”

Working with these promotoras, Sharkey and his team plan to develop a program to improve individual and family behavior in three key areas: nutrition, physical activity and “screen time.”

“Positive behavior changes in children are not sustainable if the family system and home environment remains unchanged,” Sharkey said. He wants to develop a program that will enable residents to maintain their cultural traditions, but do so in a healthier way. For example, this might involve using olive oil in tortillas instead of lard.

The new program builds on variety of other programs Sharkey has developed in South Texas since 2007. His first project along the border involved driving every road in Hidalgo County to map its food resources. More recently, he has done several studies looking at hunger rates among children and the elderly who live in the colonias.

Sharkey said improving the health of families living along the U.S.-Mexico border is important because these communities are typical of many new immigrant communities springing up throughout the country, including in states such as North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Iowa, Colorado, Oregon and Oklahoma.

“If you look at the demographics, populations of Mexican origin will be the largest minority group in the United States, if they are not so already,” Sharkey said. “We hope this project will help us learn how to improve the health of this population, whether it is through individual behavior or environmental changes.”

Partners on the project include New Mexico State University (Jill McDonald, Ph.D.), the Mariposa Community Health Center in Nogales, Ariz. (Susan Kunz, M.P.H.), Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service (Sharon Robinson, Ph.D.), and Baylor University (M. Renee Umstattd Meyer, Ph.D.). The USDA awarded the grant through the Childhood Obesity Prevention Challenge Area, a program of the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative sponsored by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Ellen Davis <![CDATA[Health Science Center offers new programs to increase the diversity of the health care workforce in Texas]]> 2015-04-14T18:51:50Z 2015-04-08T13:24:02Z College of Medicine and College of Nursing start new programs with the help of grants from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board]]>

Having a more diverse health care workforce isn’t just a lofty goal. Numerous studies – including one by the Institute of Medicine – have documented that patients from minority communities do better when they are treated by health care professionals with similar backgrounds.

photo of minority student

The Texas A&M College of Medicine and College of Nursing have both started new programs designed to increase the number of students from underrepresented communities who apply to medical and nursing school.

That is why the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine and College of Nursing have both started new programs they hope will help increase the diversity of the health care workforce in Texas. Both programs have been funded by grants from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB).

The College of Medicine has started a three-part program it calls the Aggie Doctor Initiative. This initiative is designed to help prospective medical students at key stages in their academic careers: their first year of college, the medical school application process, and their first year of medical school.

The initiative launched last fall with the selection of 25 first-year undergraduate students at Texas A&M University who are participating in an existing program called the FOCUS Learning Community, which is designed to help support low-income students or those who are the first in their families to attend college.

Each of these students was paired with a current Texas A&M medical student who has a similar background. In the fall, the students all took the same chemistry class as well as a common seminar class to help them prepare for exams. The program has also made science tutors and supplemental instruction available for those who want them.

“First-year undergraduate students on a pre-med track face a schedule packed with classes such as chemistry, biology and statistics,” said David McIntosh, assistant dean for diversity at the College of Medicine and director of the Aggie Doctor Initiative. “We lose so many students in that first year.”

After just one semester, McIntosh said the benefits were clear as the program’s inaugural students performed much better in their first semester than pre-med students have done in the past.

“We even had two students earn a 4.0 grade point average,” he said, also noting that the group of students has formed a unique bond, which should provide support as they continue their undergraduate education.

This spring, McIntosh began offering some medically relevant experiences for the undergraduates, such as a suture clinic taught by medical school students. Participants also are shadowing physicians at Health for All, a nonprofit medical clinic in Bryan, and have had the opportunity to work with Mark Sicilio, M.D., a practicing pediatrician and the interim chair of the Humanities Department in the Texas A&M College of Medicine.

“We hope some of these students will attend the Texas A&M College of Medicine, but we will be happy to see them attend any medical school,” McIntosh said. “Some of them will be highly sought after.”

While the first year of college is a pivotal time for all students, sophomores and juniors interested in entering into medicine can still benefit from the Aggie Doctor Initiative through a program called Pre-Med Fellows, which accepted its first 10 participants last fall.

The Pre-Med Fellows program also provides mentoring, as well as an MCAT prep course, a seminar on preparing medical school applications, and the opportunity to sit in on some classes at the College of Medicine. Students who complete the Pre-Med Fellows program and earn a score of 27 on the MCAT will be guaranteed admission into the Texas A&M College of Medicine.

Finally, for students entering their first year of medical school, the initiative is launching MedCamp, which will welcome its first 25 participants this summer. These participants will be selected from among applicants who have expressed an interest in remediating healthcare disparities in Texas. These students will have the opportunity to arrive on campus a month early so they can participate in a variety of social and academic activities designed to acclimatize them to life as a medical student.

“In medical school, students have tests every two weeks that cover about as much material as they would have had in a whole semester as undergraduates,” McIntosh said. “Even students who have been high-achieving their entire lives sometimes hit a bump in the road when they get here.”

Students participating in MedCamp will be connected with four mentors to help them as they start medical school – a staff mentor, a clinical faculty mentor, a science faculty member and a mentor who is a second-year medical student.

The College of Medicine received funding from the THECB to run the Aggie Doctor Initiative for two years. After that, McIntosh hopes to secure additional funds to keep the program going and make it available to even more students.

The College of Nursing is using the grant it received from the THECB to develop a program to recruit and retain more nurses from South Texas, specifically Hidalgo County, which is the poorest county in the United States. The goal of the program is to expand the Hispanic nurse workforce, since this is the most underrepresented racial/ethnic group among the registered nurses, with only about 6 percent nationwide.

The college is partnering with South Texas College, the South Texas Health System and the McAllen Independent School District to identify potential candidates beginning as early as middle school who have an interest in the field of nursing. The program, which will leverage the college’s presence at the Texas A&M Health Science Center McAllen campus, will include workshops to talk about careers in nursing and offer application assistance to prospective students.

Jodie Gary, Ph.D., an assistant professor of nursing who is directing the initiative, said the college hopes to double its enrollment of Hispanic students within the next two years. Gary thinks one program that might be particularly appealing to students in the area is the college’s R.N. to B.S.N. program that can be completed online.

“South Texas has fewer nurses with bachelor’s degrees than other parts of the state,” Gary said. “Studies have shown a positive correlation between level of education and patient outcomes, so this is something we can do that will really make an impact in that area.”