Apr 24, 2019 8:00 AM

two daughters play in the park with their mom.

April is National Minority Health Month. Cancer research has produced many advances in cancer prevention and treatment. But not everyone has benefitted equally from that progress. Some races, ethnicities, and population groups have higher rates of cancer diagnosis and cancer death than other groups. These are known as cancer health disparities. Huntsman Cancer Institute and University of Utah Health are committed to ending health disparities in the Mountain West.

We spoke to two of our staff about their on-the-ground work to address health disparities, and why they value diversity in cancer research and care.

Priyanka Kanth, MD

Priyanka Kanth and another doctor stand in front of a colon cancer education exhibit
Priyanka Kanth, MD (right) provides education on colon health and screening with her colleague Takayuki Suzuki, MD.

What do you do at HCI?

I am a gastroenterologist with research interests in colon polyps and colon cancer. I spend a large part of my time consulting and performing endoscopies on patients with hereditary gastrointestinal (GI) cancer syndromes and their families. I lead the GI section of the Familial Cancer Assessment Clinic at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI). HCI has large registries of patients who have hereditary cancer syndromes. This unique clinic serves patients throughout the Mountain West.

How does your work address health disparities?

Colon cancer is preventable through screening, which looks for colon polyps before they become cancer. Colonoscopies can save lives, but colonoscopy rates in some populations and regions in Utah are below average. I am on the Utah steering committee for the American Cancer Society’s “80% in Every Community” initiative. Our goal is to screen 80% of all people in Utah for colon cancer.

One of my favorite areas of my work is to spread awareness on colon cancer prevention and reach people who can truly benefit from education about cancer screening. Cancer does not discriminate by race or gender, but income and education levels can contribute to not getting the right care at the right time, leading to worse outcomes for patients. Educating the public and other providers about screening options can play a huge role in prevention, early diagnosis, and better treatment of colon cancer.

Why do you think diversity and inclusion are important in cancer research and care?

Including scientists and researchers from diverse backgrounds gives a wider perspective to research methodologies and process. Diversity and inclusion also lead to better patient satisfaction and the best outcomes in clinical care. For example, we often receive requests from female patients to have a female team for their colonoscopy. Being a woman gastroenterologist in our health system makes a big difference.

How do you foster an environment of inclusion?

By education, communication, and respect. Cultural barriers or perceptions can be understood using the right communication channels and working cohesively as a team.  

How did you get to where you currently are in your career?

Hard work and time management are basic foundations for achieving career goals. But I would say two other things have shaped my career. One is fostering solid, long-term collaborations with colleagues and mentors. The second is something which we have no control over—being in the “right place at the right time.” Remarkably, this has happened twice in my career, leading me to gastroenterology and research on serrated colon polyps. The field of serrated lesions was evolving, and my research career grew as this field grew. I have absolutely loved every minute of my clinical and research work.

Chesleigh N. Keene, MA, PhD
Postdoctoral Research Associate
Center for Health Outcomes and Population Equity (HOPE)

photo of chesleigh keene

What do you do at HCI? 

I am a postdoctoral research associate in the Center for HOPE. I work on cancer prevention and smoking cessation research, with a focus on decreasing smoking-related health disparities in vulnerable populations.

How does your work contribute to address health disparities?

Our research addresses inequities for groups who face greater obstacles to health due to social or economic disadvantages. The studies I’m currently working on leverage these disadvantages by providing evidence-based interventions to smokers and connecting them with free or low-cost treatment options. Ultimately, when people quit smoking they reduce their chance of smoking-related disease. We are also working on studies that provide interventions known to affect multiple health behaviors, such as mindfulness training, to help a person increase positive health behaviors and reduce negative ones.

Why do you think diversity and inclusion are important in cancer research and care?

Diversity and inclusion in cancer research and care is important because, while we have seen improvements in health and health outcomes over the years, progress for racial and ethnic minorities has not been equitable. In part, this is because there isn’t much diversity in medicine, research, and health care. I’m very passionate about increasing the diversity of providers and researchers. By diversifying our workforce, we increase cultural competency, provide access to the best care, and strengthen research that directly impacts diverse communities. Without diversity, many scientific questions go unstudied. Research and policy agendas do not include important issues that impact minority communities with disproportionate cancer rates. 

How do you foster an environment of inclusion (with patients, colleagues, community)?

My graduate education was grounded in social justice and inclusive excellence. I’ve had amazing mentors who have modeled how to appreciate and foster diversity. I’ve also been the direct beneficiary of sponsors who helped me move through this academic world. I view all aspects of my current role through a lens of diversity and inclusion. This best enables me to further build my community connections, institutional networks, and research collaborations.

My personal approach to inclusion is to consider which voices are not being represented and find ways to include them. I want to do the best I can to increase the number of diverse members in medicine and social sciences and am personally dedicated to increasing the representation of Native American students at the graduate level and as teachers and providers.

How did you get to where you currently are in your career?

Being a member of a Native American tribe and having a father who worked in the public health sector has been the foundation of my passion for improving the lives of Native Americans. When I was young, both of my parents were vocal about the health needs in reservation communities. I was always drawn to the mental health side of things.

As I’ve worked my way through a master’s in community counseling and a PhD in counseling psychology, I’ve gravitated toward health inequity and particularly health disparities experienced by Native communities. Although I was trained as a clinician and thoroughly enjoyed being a therapist, I see research as the way to have a greater impact, particularly in ensuring the best care for communities in great need. Working with the Center for HOPE allows me to broaden my skillset to offer in-the-moment interventions that can greatly reduce the incidence of cancer and disease. I’m very grateful to have landed at HCI!

Sheetal Hardikar, PhD, and Jessica Cohan, MD
Epidemiologist and Colorectal Cancer Surgeon

Sheetal Hardikar and Jessica Cohan
Sheetal Hardikar (left) and Jessica Cohan (right)

What do you do at HCI?

We work together to better understanding colorectal cancer screening rates in the entire state of Utah so we can identify the major barriers and facilitators to colorectal cancer screening, particularly in underserved populations.

How does your work address health disparities?

A recent report by the Utah Comprehensive Cancer Control Program (UCCCP) showed that Utahns living in medically underserved regions, even within urban areas, have lower rates of cancer screening—particularly among those with lower socio-economic status, non-Caucasian race, and Hispanic ethnicity.

We are currently working on a project to identify characteristics of patients who don’t follow colorectal cancer screening guidelines through surveys given at state health fairs. We will address the disparities we find by developing a sustainable intervention to increase colorectal cancer screening in the medically underserved patients who currently access care through an existing mobile health clinic, The Wellness Bus.

Why do you think diversity and inclusion are important in cancer research and care?

It is important to increase diversity in the oncology workforce in order to create an environment of inclusion where patients feel comfortable, safe, and heard. Having a cancer research and care team who can understand their patients’ backgrounds and can effectively communicate and relate to their patients’ issues improves the experience of patients. This enables delivery of high-quality cancer care to diverse populations who experience persistent disparities in access to cancer prevention, diagnosis, and treatment—and, therefore, poorer health outcomes.

How do you foster an environment of inclusion?

We strive to establish an environment and culture of inclusivity, break down stereotypes, and enhance communication not just between providers/researchers and patients, but also between researchers themselves. Inclusive workforce culture is key to improving the quality of care to patients, optimizing patient satisfaction, and advancing scientific research.

How did you get to where you currently are in your career?

Dr. Hardikar: We both come from very diverse backgrounds. I was trained as a clinician in India and worked at a community hospital which catered to primarily underserved populations. While treating hundreds of patients each week, I realized the importance of population-level health interventions and what a strong impact they can have in improving the health of a society. This led to my training in population-level research methods to help design large population-based studies aimed at understanding the risk factors and progression of cancer. I am really excited to work with local communities and populations in Utah!

Dr. Cohan: I was raised in a rural area of Northern California and was inspired to go into medicine by my work as a health counselor. Through this work, I realized that many people face complex and diverse barriers when trying to access routine medical care. Now as a colorectal surgeon, I routinely treat patients with colorectal cancer. I am excited for the opportunity to work toward breaking down the barriers to cancer screening and preventing colorectal cancer among Utahns.

minority health health equity cancer screening tobacco colorectal cancer cancer center research program cancer control and population sciences

Cancer touches all of us.

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