Ezemenari M. Obasi, associate professor in the UH College of Education’s department of psychological, health and learning sciences, is on a mission to improve public health. Together with his co-director Lorraine Reitzel, he led the effort to launch a new institute focused on HEALTH—Helping Everyone Achieve a LifeTime of Health—by bringing together community-based common sense with science.
The interdisciplinary group of scientists joining Obasi and Reitzel behind the HEALTH Research Institute aim to make improvements within communities that bear a disproportionate burden of disease and who are oftentimes disenfranchised, marginalized or underserved. While the research will be empirical in nature, they will work with the community to make it translational. Ultimately, this will give grass-roots leaders and organizations in the community tools they can use themselves to better serve their health needs and be part of their own solution. By putting the science into real-world practice, this puts the power into the hands of the people who will be using it day to day.
What inspired you to create the HEALTH Research Institute?
One of the motivating factors for me coming to the University of Houston was its focus on health-related issues. UH is brimming with untapped potential and home to many strong researchers in the health arena, many of whom want to collaborate. The impetus for the institute was to bring people together in an organized way, so we could collaborate in the most effective way possible. The HEALTH Research Institute creates an infrastructure to serve as a home base to leverage all these talents. In doing so, we intend to magnify the collective impact we’re having on communities. With Houston being one of the most diverse places in the country, we aim to lead the conversation as it relates to minimizing and eliminating health disparities.
What are your goals for the institute?
We want to start a conversation around how to make sure everyone has the opportunity to have a fulfilling life. In doing so, you begin to think through issues of equity and ways in which certain groups have been disadvantaged. Oftentimes, we have communities that get left out of the conversation and suffer as a result. We want to make sure we’re an entity that focuses on everybody and doesn’t leave certain segments behind.
Ultimately, when you take steps to solve health care issues such as cost and access, everybody wins, because we all pay for it one way or another. For instance, if uninsured people receive assistance for health care, premiums are adjusted for those who have insurance to account for it. If we understand what makes certain subpopulations more at risk, we could begin to design strategies for preventing the incidence of some of these issues across time.
"Ultimately, this will give grass-roots leaders and organizations in the community tools they can use, themselves, to better serve their health needs and be part of their own solution."
How do you plan to achieve those goals?
Currently, we don’t really have a clear picture of what’s happening, because these communities historically haven’t been involved in health-focused research studies. White middle class communities have traditionally been the focal point of defining what health is, what the risks for diseases entail and how to intervene to improve health.
So a lot of our medical practices are based on that literature. That’s fine to do if those findings always translate to other populations, but we often find they don’t.
We plan to identify important factors that affect health among underserved groups based on their interactions with their environment or cultural context. Our job is to figure out what the knowledge gaps are and use this information to improve prevention and intervention efforts for these communities.
What kind of impact do you envision this institute will have on the community?
We’re hoping to build sustainable partnerships that allow everyone to have a voice in the solutions. When communities have a say and can participate, there’s a much greater investment in the process and implementation, as well as a sense of ownership. Together, we can leverage our lived experiences and scientific expertise to promote health equity and eliminate the disparities that we know exist in some communities.
What do you, personally, find rewarding or fulfilling about the creation of this institute?
From my perspective, it’s always important to make the world a better place than what you inherited. For me, it’s more meaningful when I can begin to take the work I’m doing from a science standpoint on the research side and demonstrate how it’s actually helping people’s lives.