Using religion to address health needs in underserved communities

February 18, 2011
By: School of Public Health

A nurse helps a patient.

In a new project, researchers from the UC Berkeley School of Public Health and the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research are incorporating religion into their methods as a way to reach women in populations where people don't traditionally seek preventive health care. They are focusing on the African American and Afghan immigrant communities in Alameda County, California—a county with large disparities in socioeconomic status and health. The project uses a community-based participatory approach and is funded by a five-year grant from the National Cancer Institute as part of the Community Networks Program National and Regional Centers for Reducing Cancer Disparities initiative. Principal investigators are Professor Joan Bloom and Professor William Satariano of the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, and Dr. Carol Somkin of Kaiser Permanente's Division of Research.

Partnering with African American churches

African Americans have among the highest rates of colorectal cancer in Alameda County and throughout California. An earlier study showed that churches could be an effective venue for reaching members of the local African American community with information about colorectal cancer screening. The new study, working with church committees and church leaders, will also educate congregants about the importance of participation in research, especially cancer clinical trials and research on genetic and environment effects on health and disease. A Pentecostal church in Hayward is serving as the community partner for the pilot study, and other churches in the diocese may follow, depending on the outcome.

"Colorectal cancer is one of the only cancers that you can actually prevent, because a lot of times if you are screened, pre-cancerous polyps can be detected and removed," says Somkin.

In addition, researchers and community members are laying the groundwork for a study of a church-based telephone-counseling intervention to increase mammography screening among uninsured and underinsured African American women.

Recognizing religion's role in the Afghan community

The San Francisco Bay Area is home to the largest Afghan community in the United States, estimated at more than 30,000, two-thirds of whom are female. Studies of Afghan immigrants suggest Afghan women are among those at the highest risk for health problems due to lack of access to health services, lack of education, language barriers, social isolation, cultural and religious barriers, and men's gatekeeping.

"Because of the patrimonial culture, the husband or the father—a male relative—makes the decisions," says Bloom. She adds that the women have "no notion of prevention. In their country, they're treated only if they already have a disease."

Bloom has been working with the Afghan immigrant community in Fremont for four years, in partnership with the Afghan Coalition, a community-based organization. Building on an earlier study that showed the significance of religion in Afghan women's health beliefs, researchers and community members will now emphasize Islamic teachings in their work to educate the women about breast health and self-examinations. Importantly, they also are teaching men in the community about their role in keeping their families healthy.

Training the next generation of researchers

The results from these projects will also contribute to the reduction of cancer disparities by training a new generation of researchers and practitioners to collaborate with community members in addressing this important public health issue. The grant supports workshops, seminars, and special mentoring programs for young professionals in the Bay Area. Among the topics included in the training are the innovative methods used in the faith-based studies. This knowledge will enable a new cohort of researchers and practitioners to develop new strategies to better understand and, ultimately, reduce cancer disparities in the population.