Mapping out a solution to rural health disparities

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Those living in rural parts of the country, particularly in Alabama, can face challenges when it comes to health care access. Dr. Natalie Hohmann, an assistant professor with the Auburn University Harrison School of Pharmacy, is investigating ways to address these health disparities.

Recognizing her work, Hohmann was selected for a KL2 Mentored Career Development Award from the Center for Clinical and Translational Sciences, or CCTS, at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The program prepares early career faculty who have recently finished a research or health professional doctorate for a career in translational research.

The goal of the program is to impart the knowledge, experience and perspective required to develop a network of independent investigators, with an emphasis on research that addresses diseases and health disparities that disproportionately affect the Deep South.

Dr. Hohmann’s KL2 award reflects the outstanding research being conducted by our junior faculty, particularly research designed to find solutions that close health disparities gaps across the Southeast,” said Dr. Tim Moore, Harrison School of Pharmacy associate dean for research. “Natalie is also the first KL2 scholar to come from Auburn since this CCTS program was established in 2014, further signifying the rapid growth of translational research projects at HSOP.

Hohmann’s project is titled, “Disparities in Access to Dementia Care in Rural Alabama: Bridging the Gap through Community Resource Mapping.” She will identify and map locations of existing dementia services in Alabama and investigate dementia caregivers’ needs, barriers to access and current utilization of dementia services in the Deep South, and how these vary across rural/urban setting and racial minority group.

“Alzheimer’s dementia and related dementias are a significant issue, and the prevalence of dementia in the United States is highest in the Southeast,” said Hohmann, a 2019 graduate from the Harrison School of Pharmacy’s Ph.D. program. “People living with dementia and the family and friends who help care for them are often not aware of the services available in their communities to help them overcome the challenges of living with dementia. They may also not have easy access to these services or live in communities that do not offer these services to begin with.”

Alabama ranks among the top in the country in dementia prevalence. Additionally, Hohmann said it is not clear what services are available, particularly when you compare rural vs. urban and Caucasian vs. African American. To better address the problem, understanding these principal differences is key to creating tailored solutions to help provide the types and numbers of services needed and working towards eliminating inequities.

“We also know that people living in rural regions have an increased risk of dementia and less availability of community-based dementia services compared to urban regions,” Hohmann said.  “There is also evidence that African American family caregivers of people living with dementia use fewer community resources, such as dementia services like respite programs and adult day care, in the rural Deep South compared to white caregivers, but spend large amounts of time each week on caregiving responsibilities.”

This toll on family members and caregivers is especially important with a condition like dementia as the patient may not be able to do their own research or care for themself in a lot of ways. For that reason, it is important for those taking care of a dementia patient to have easy access to information and resources.

“Family members and friends who help take care of people living with advanced dementia may need to spend more time at home to take care of their loved one, meaning less time spent at work, relaxing or taking care of other personal and family needs,” Hohmann said. “This can take an emotional, physical and financial toll on these caregivers. Local communities can help support family and friends who care for people living with dementia by providing resources and services like adult day care programs, home helpers, support groups, memory clinics and educational sessions.”

With her research into the problem, Hohmann plans to develop an interactive map illustrating dementia services in Alabama. Not only will the map act as a resource for those looking for assistance, but the data will also show areas of need within the state.

“Natalie has definitely hit the ground running with what she has accomplished in the relatively short time she has been here,” said Dr. Scott Penzak, head of the Department of Pharmacy Practice.

Guiding Hohmann through the project is Dr. Salisa Westrick, Sterling Professor and department head in the Harrison School of Pharmacy’s Department of Health Outcomes Research and Policy. Additional mentors on the KL2 project include Dr. Andrea Cherrington, UAB Department of Medicine; Dr. Olivio Clay, UAB Department of Psychology; and Dr. Carolyn Pickering, UAB School of Nursing.