Population Health

April 30, 2024

Building authentic relationships between academic researchers and communities

Silhouettes of a group of peopleHistory is fraught with repeated violations of researchers breaching the trust of minority communities. From the well-known cases of the 1932 Tuskegee Syphilis study to the more recent Havasupai Genetic Diabetes Research, these ethical violations underscore the importance of prioritizing and fostering respectful and culturally competent relationships between researchers and the communities with which they engage. By embracing relationship-centered research, the genuine prioritization of the needs of the population can occur, advancing efforts to dismantle health disparities.

In Spring 2023, a research team that includes collaborators from the University of Washington and the Community Health Board Coalition (CHBC) was awarded a Tier 3 Population Health Initiative pilot grant to further work in decreasing health disparities. The Tier 3 award is led by Dr. Theresa Hoeft, a research assistant professor in the School of Medicine, and Nora Coronado, co-chair of the Latinx Health Board and the program director of Workforce Inclusion and Healthcare System Equity with UW Medicine’s Office of Healthcare Equity. This project aims to refine and disseminate a mixed methods toolkit in close partnership with collaborators in the CHBC aimed at creating trustworthy, meaningful and culturally appropriate partnerships and builds off previous work accomplished through a 2021 Tier 1 Population Health Initiative pilot grant.

“The goal of this toolkit is to provide scaffolding and support to researchers working to reduce health disparities, especially if they are jumping into this work for the first time,” explained Hoeft. The toolkit is designed for academic, public health and community co-researcher audiences and covers key topics such as positionality and anti-racism reflections, values and anchors for community partnerships, research terminology, community-based participatory research and related frameworks, mixed methods research and example assessment tools.

“Population health and public health has been approached in our communities in a very one-sided manner with one perspective — the Western perspective,” explained Dr. Hugo Puerto, a co-investigator on the project, recent graduate of the UW Anthropology program, research consultant in the School of Medicine and coalition manager with the CHBC. “This project in particular got our attention because it balances out the power dynamics, develops relationships and builds trust with our communities.”

The project’s initial step begins with piloting the toolkit with two health boards from the CHBC: the Latinx Health Board and the African Leaders Health Board. Both communities will simultaneously utilize the toolkit, gathering feedback on its implementation through surveys and interviews.

These findings will then guide further discussions on refinement with the community advisory board composed of CHBC members and the methods advisory group which is filled with experts in mixed methods, implementation science, anti-racism and critical race theory. Once the toolkit is finalized, the team will share this resource across the country, helping researchers and communities build respectful partnerships that center community concerns, joys, and methods.

“Something you always hear in research is that relationships take time,” expressed Coronado. “With COVID, we had to start at ground zero to build these relationships. With this toolkit, we hope that people will help create these partnerships way before another crisis occurs.”

Ultimately, this project represents the inclusion of diverse perspectives in the field of research, the furthering of health equity and the decolonization of population health. “It’s been a benefit to be able to work on this pilot and have the work be immediately meaningful to the [CBHC] community,” said Hoeft. “I really value this connection and look forward to sharing this information with people throughout the University of Washington and, eventually, the rest of the country.”