Cancer Disparities in Rural America – 2nd Rural Cancer Disparities Partnership Retreat, July 15, 2016

by Katy Henke

For such an important issue, rural cancer disparities don’t often get their due attention. Yet, it is understood by researchers and rural community members alike that geographic location has an important affect on population health and preventative health interventions. For individuals living in rural, isolated areas, a lack of access to healthcare can be a major burden in receiving appropriate care.

From 2010 Census data, roughly 19 percent of the American population lives in rural counties, with often vast distances between population centers and many health services (figure). Health research must focus on reducing health inequalities and cancer burdens experienced by many rural Americans.

Source: US Census Bureau, 2010

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) have created multiple resources that are intended to help researchers address the needs of these isolated communities and help increase access to healthcare and cancer prevention screenings and prevention information. What can be done to reduce, and ideally eliminate, these disparities? Establishing relationships and collaborating with other organizations on rural cancer disparities research is crucial, as the NIH and NCI provides funds to continue this research to reduce cancer burden.

In 2013, Washington University School of Medicine and Siteman Cancer Center began working with Southern Illinois University School of Medicine to address rural cancer disparities in Southern Illinois from NIH grants. From this partnership, researchers from both institutions hope to reduce the burden felt by many residents and create appropriate, successful cancer intervention programs.

“Low-income rural communities experience significant cancer health disparities, including lower screening rates, increased incidence, later stage detection, poorer survival, and higher mortality rates. This is the unfortunate reality for much of the central rural, southern rural, and Delta (Downstate) regions in Illinois,” said Sonya Izadi, Senior Public Health Research Coordinator and Program Coordinator for the rural cancer disparities project at Washington University School of Medicine. “Together, we have created an integrated partnership to heighten awareness and build research capacity in addressing rural cancer disparities in Downstate Illinois. Ultimately, this partnership strives to narrow rural cancer disparities by reducing the cancer burden in the Downstate Illinois region.”

Providing access to healthcare is only one hurdle that rural communities face. Some community members may not have health insurance, may mistrust the healthcare system, or may not know that behavioral lifestyle changes can be one of the best ways to reduce cancer risk. Continued prevention campaigns and research are essential to overcoming these hurdles and helping reduce rural cancer disparities.

The Affordable Care Act has been instrumental in providing health insurance to low-income, underserved populations. Telephone health coaching campaigns have been successful at reaching isolated community members to provide health education, such as smoking cessation programs. Researchers are working towards finding solutions and implementing new cancer prevention techniques to help reduce rural cancer disparities and reduce the burden on community members. In order to keep pace with the growing population, research must continue to be funded to develop and implement appropriate solutions so rural communities receive the healthcare they deserve.

The 2nd Rural Cancer Disparities Partnership Retreat will be held on Friday, July 15th at the Washington University School of Medicine, offering the opportunity for investigators from Washington University, Siteman Cancer Center, and Southern Illinois University School of Medicine to learn about rural cancer disparities from people working in the rural central, southern, and Delta regions of Illinois.

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