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Partnership aims to improve health outcomes in marginalized Arkansas communities

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A new project led by UAMS aims to address chronic health issues in marginalized communities in Arkansas.

The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences is partnering with two other research institutions on a project to preemptively address health issues that disproportionately affect members of historically disadvantaged communities.

The UAMS Heart Healthy Communities Project is teaming up with the University of California, Los Angeles and Howard University in Washington, D.C. to share information and resources related to improving health outcomes and quality-of-life.

Irion Pursell, director of cardiovascular disease primary prevention at UAMS, says the goal is to proactively engage members of communities typically more at risk of developing certain chronic illnesses.

“We discovered a third of the population of Arkansas has heart disease. That’s just a huge number, so obviously there’s a need for prevention and intervention. Sadly, most of that heart disease falls in underserved communities, and a lot of the deaths, more than half, are attributable to lifestyle,” Pursell said.

Pursell says the project has deployed community health workers to go door-to-door in marginalized communities in Arkansas to help connect residents with health and wellness resources, including healthcare providers and social workers.

“We recognize that there are social needs that people have, as well as medical needs. So community health workers have a toolbox that they can dip into and link people with food banks, link people with Medicaid enrollment programs… and we have access to, obviously, UAMS’ entire clinical provider groups,” Pursell said.

Pursell says the Arkansas Delta is the primary focus area of the project, with plans to expand to other parts of the state in the near future. A pilot project is currently underway in Phillips County in the southeast part of the state.

The partnership with Howard University and UCLA involves sharing real-time health information from communities through an electronic dashboard. Pursell says sharing data with other universities will hopefully give policymakers more incentive to address systemic issues in public health.

“In that way, we have community health workers educating stakeholders in the community, maybe the city council, maybe the county commission, maybe the local health department, that this tool is available and what the scope of the data is,” Pursell said. “They may use it for planning purposes, they may use it to address specific issues.”

The project is partially funded by a $1.7 million grant from the CDC Foundation. The UAMS Heart Healthy Communities Project is one of six nationwide selected to work with a joint venture between Howard University and UCLA called Project REFOCUS (Racial Ethnic Framing of Community-Informed and Unifying Surveillance) which first began in October 2020.

Daniel Breen is a Little Rock-based reporter, anchor and producer for KUAR.