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Florida's New Effort to Implement Research Agenda
Strengthens Work of Florida Alliance

By Penny A. Ralston, Ph.D.

Florida 2010 CensusFlorida, one of the most diverse states in the U.S., has a total population of 18.8 million. According to the 2010 U.S. census, of that number, 22.5% are Hispanic, 16% African American/Black, 2.5% Asian/Pacific Islander, 0.4% American Indian/Alaskan, and 6.1% other races/two or more races. Florida’s minority populations are now an emerging ethnic/racial majority. At the same time, there are Floridians of various ethnic/racial backgrounds who are rural, low-income and medically underserved. These Floridians—emerging ethnic/racial majority, rural, low-income and medically underserved—often carry a higher disease burden than other groups, including age adjusted higher proportions of diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart and other cardiovascular diseases, HIV/AIDS, and infant mortality, among many others.

Given these demographic and health status trends, it is clear that Florida is at a critical juncture in determining the best strategies for improving not only the health of emerging majority and underserved groups but also the health of all Floridians. Clearly, for the state to improve socially and economically, it needs a healthy workforce and healthy citizens. Yet research efforts to improve health in Florida lack collaboration and coordination. Further, the scale of research is limited with few large, multi-university and multi-disciplinary efforts in the state to improve health in these populations.

To address this problem, in 2011 the Florida Department of Health convened a group of over 30 scholars and community stakeholders to develop the Health Disparities Research (HDR) Agenda for Florida. The HDR Agenda called for a unified effort to implement the strategies to address disparities which resulted in the development of the Florida Health Equity Institute (HERI) approved by the state in 2013. The main goal of HERI is to implement the HDR Agenda for Florida through proactive collaborations among academic institutions, health care providers, government organizations, community-based organizations, and funding organizations. Through this effort, HERI will facilitate the design of broad-based studies to address health disparities in medically underserved populations and to evaluate the outcomes consistent with the following goals:

  • Increase the development of health innovations that will improve the health of medically underserved populations
  • Increase the translation, adaptation and implementation of evidenced-based health innovations in underserved populations
  • Increase the pool of individuals from underrepresented groups for the health professions and biomedical research
  • Increase external funding that will improve economic development in the state
  • Increased recognition of Florida as a leader in improved health outcomes for medically underserved populations

HERI will operate through four cores: Administrative, Education and Training, Research, and Community Engagement.

Florida Symposium TabletopParallel to the compelling need to address health disparities in the state is the lack of a diverse scientific workforce. For example, data on practicing health professionals in Florida show critical gaps in the numbers who represent diverse backgrounds. Further, there are low numbers of diverse students enrolled in health professional schools such as medicine and dentistry, and low numbers of diverse graduates from masters and doctoral programs.

The Florida Alliance on Health Professions Diversity (FAHPD), established in 2007, has played a key role in addressing these workforce issues in Florida. However, FAHPD has been challenged with the lack of major funding, especially continuing multi-year support. With the establishment of HERI, FAHPD will be a key partner in operating the HERI Education and Training Core by expanding its two signature programs: Student Symposia on Health Professions and the Florida Alliance Scholars.

Over 750 students have attended symposia held throughout the state in the past five years. With HERI funds, multiple symposia will be implemented annually and students in underserved areas for FAHPD programming such as South Florida will be able to participate more fully.

Florida ScholarsSince its inception, the Florida Alliance Scholars Program has involved 32 students. Of that number 11 are still pursuing high school or college degrees (7 and 4, respectively) 16 have completed degrees (8 bachelor’s, 8 master’s), five are enrolled in Ph.D., M.D. or DDS programs, and five are employed. Through the support from HERI, more Scholars will be recruited with the goal of at least 20 per year. In addition, stipends will be increased to a more competitive level. Finally, partnerships with other student research programs and with the community through HERI’s Community Engagement Core will be explored.

HERI provides a mechanism for FAHPD to be more visible with established researchers and with policymakers. Through this partnership, Florida is moving forward in exciting ways to address health disparities and to promote health equity. As a result, we believe that all Floridians will benefit.

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