NIH Funds Community-Led Research on Structural Drivers of Health

Oct. 2, 2023
The Community Partnerships to Advance Science for Society (ComPASS) program involves 26 awards to community organizations and a coordinating center at Drexel University

The National Institutes of Health is funding community-led research program to study ways to address the underlying structural factors within communities that affect health, such as access to safe spaces, healthy food, employment opportunities, transportation, and quality health care.

Through the NIH Common Fund Community Partnerships to Advance Science for Society (ComPASS) program, NIH made 26 awards to community organizations and a coordinating center, totaling approximately $171 million over five years, pending the availability of funds.

Philadelphia-based Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health will serve as the coordination center on the national initiative, working in partnership with the University of New Mexico College of Population Health and the data and social-science organization Mathematica.

The ComPASS Program’s focus on upstream, root causes of health inequities and related solutions generated and supported at the community level is a brilliant strategy, and we’re thrilled to play a key role in this work,” said principal investigator Amy Carroll-Scott, Ph.D., an associate professor and chair of Community Health and Prevention at Drexel, in a statement. “Our approach draws from Drexel’s civic and community engagement mission and the School of Public Health’s deep expertise supporting communities who understand best how to tackle the structural drivers of the health inequities they experience. With our close partners from the University of New Mexico and Mathematica, we are committed to supporting this work as well as gathering and sharing research evidence so that it informs local action and the broader field.”

Through these awards, ComPASS will enable research into sustainable solutions that promote health equity to create lasting change in communities across the nation.

NIH is directly funding research projects led by community organizations. Leaders from the organizations will work in collaboration with their research partners at academic institutions and other organizations in all phases of the research process. ComPASS projects study social determinants of health — the social, physical, and economic conditions where people are born, grow, live, work, age, and play — that contribute to health inequities.

The projects will examine underlying conditions and environments that influence health outcomes by enabling the development, implementation, and assessment of structural interventions. Structural interventions are meant to alter social determinants of health by changing factors that create differences in opportunities to achieve optimal health.

Each award will foster the design of strategies to improve health outcomes through innovative structural interventions to address community concerns, such as economic development, social and community context, neighborhood characteristics, health care access and quality, and nutrition and food environment. Community organizations and their research partners will work together to develop a structural intervention, launch it within their communities, and then assess whether the intervention improves health outcomes. Several examples of ComPASS-supported research projects, which focus on populations that experience health disparities, include:

• Supporting access to healthy food in underserved rural communities through the delivery of food boxes to local stores and individuals, and facilitating local food harvesting, processing, and distribution in the community. The project will measure whether these interventions reduce hunger, improve diet quality, promote healthy weight, and protect people against chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

• Assessing whether early childcare strategies improve mental health for children and their parents and guardians. This project will develop and examine community strategies that increase access to public early childcare, education, and programming to support young children and families in areas with limited access to childcare.

• Enhancing access to healthcare through individualized travel information and resources along with a transportation stipend for health care and related trips. The project will assess whether improved transportation access can reduce emergency department readmissions and secondary infections, decrease hospital costs, and improve disease management.

• Improving access to quality healthcare for older adults from sexual and gender minority populations by creating culturally appropriate and inclusive protocols in the local health system. The project will measure how these changes in the local health system affect overall physical and mental health.

• Assessing whether enhancing telehealth models in rural communities can improve preventative screening and disease management for cancer, depression, diabetes, high blood pressure, and other chronic diseases among agricultural workers. The project will improve telehealth by transforming the workers' access to affordable, reliable high-speed broadband internet.

The ComPASS Coordinating Center at Drexel will direct multiple components of the ComPASS Program through three interdependent cores: administrative, data, and research capacity building. The Drexel team’s work includes creation and facilitation of a national health equity research assembly; establishing communities of practice and related affinity groups to foster multi-sector collaboration and co-learning; the planning and delivery of a virtual kick-off and in-person annual meetings; developing content for the programmatic website; oversight of data collection, harmonization, reporting, and sharing processes; and delivery of expert-lead trainings, one-on-one and group consultations, and technical assistance for participating ComPASS organizations.

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