Lexington, Ky. – Chronic health challenges show no regard for state boundaries in central Appalachia. Some of the nation’s highest rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and mental health problems can be found in the region stretching across Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio and Tennessee. Recognizing that these unrelenting regional health problems required a proportional regional response, researchers and clinicians across central Appalachian states created the Appalachian Translational Research Network (ATRN).
The ATRN aims to enhance research collaborations and speed the translation of scientific discoveries to improve health in the region. Members include the University of Kentucky, Marshall University, The Ohio State University, University of Cincinnati, Ohio University, West Virginia University and East Tennessee State University.
This month, more than 130 clinicians, researchers, policymakers and community members gathered at the 5th Annual ATRN Health Summit to share expertise, resources and facilitate collaboration. The ATRN summit was held Oct. 14 – 16 in Charleston, West Virginia, in conjunction with the annual meeting of the West Virginia Clinical and Translational Science Institute (WVCTSI). The summit included podium and poster presentations as well as regional and national expert speakers.
“The reality is that the very long term health disparities and health conditions within the central Appalachian region are so well-documented,” said Patrick Kitzman, director of the ATRN and associate professor at UK. “The problems are so large that no one institution can even begin to have a sustained impact on fixing them. The only way to have a sustained impact in the region is to work as a team. We need collaborative voices and knowledge, and we have to look at it at every level you can think of.”
Patient-centered outcomes research was a particular focus of the ATRN summit. Greg Martin, deputy director of stakeholder engagement at the Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI), presented an overview of the institute, and three investigators who have received PCORI funding shared their research. Presenters included Debra Moser, PhD, RN, professor of nursing at UK; Kelly Nottingham, MPH, CHES, executive director of Primary Care Research Initiatives; and Nate Thompson, executive director of the Athens Photographic Project, who shared his using art as means to engage and support individuals living with mental illness.
“We’ve got to get out of the mindset that only doctors and nurses and clinicians can ask questions about health care. We’ve got to listen to communities,” Kitzman said.
The summit also focused on identifying and learning from “bright spots” of positive health outcomes in Appalachia. Earlier this year, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) and the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky joined with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) to launch a three year Bright Spots research project to examine factors that support a culture of health and hopefully translate these factors into actions that address health disparities in Appalachia.
Kitzman said that convening the ARC and RWJF with the ATRN partners helped everyone learn about each other’s work and identify possible collaborations.
“Instead of always asking ‘What’s bad here?’ we can also look at spots where things are working. What are they doing right? Can the region learn from its own groups?” he said.
Julie Lockman, director of scientific development and research pathfinder at the WVCTSI, emphasized the essential need for stakeholders throughout the region to combine efforts and share what’s working, and what’s not.
“The state boundaries are there, but the health issues surpass those boundaries. The research taking place in West Virginia is just as applicable to regions of Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee because the health disparities exist across borders. Whether it was bench science or community work or policy, we had all those pieces of the puzzles represented at the summit,” she said.
Conference organizers reported robust dialogue between participants who were eager to learn about research and programs throughout the region.
“Bringing different people together is the best thing that comes out of these conferences,” said Jay Mason, program coordinator for community engagement and outreach at the WVCTSI. “And then the question becomes how we can continue to build on these relationships after these meetings.”
Next year’s ATRN summit, which rotates between partnering institutions, will be held at Ohio University.