Oct. 3, 2018: Engaging Communities for Smarter Science

At NCATS, we strive to engage many different types of communities throughout the translational science process, from laboratory discoveries to better treatments for disease to improvements in public health. Success along the way requires innovation, including new kinds of partners who bring different perspectives and skill sets, as well as nontraditional and often unconventional approaches.

Identifying a problem is a first step. For example, researchers have long understood the dangers of high blood pressure and that taking certain medications can help keep this condition under control. But getting patients to take a daily medication — or even to see a doctor about their high blood pressure in the first place — is surprisingly difficult.

What’s also known is that black men are more likely to die from complications of high blood pressure than any other demographic group in the U.S. Accordingly, researchers at the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI), an NCATS Clinical and Translational Science Awards Program hub, are working on a better way to reach these at-risk men by connecting them to health care in barbershops.

The researchers knew that barbers tend to be trusted influencers in black male communities, that these barbers tend to see their clients much more often than their customers see a doctor, and that some patrons actually never visit a medical professional. What would happen if pharmacists went to the barbershops to evaluate and provide needed medication for patrons with high blood pressure?

The UCLA CTSI Community Engagement Unit helped the research team find local barbers who agreed to assist with identifying study participants, and the scientists were soon on their way to learning more. Results showed that after six months, the men who met with pharmacists in their barbershops had significantly lower blood pressure. This demonstrated that the barbershop is an effective way to reach black men with health-related messages, and it also showed the value of pharmacists as members of the care team.

One barber became so involved that he even served as a co-author on the study report published in the New England Journal of Medicine. What a great example of how community engagement can help reach people at risk, address a health disparity and even strengthen connections within the community!

We shared and advanced other approaches to community engagement recently during our second annual NCATS Day, which this year provided a forum for participants to share and reflect upon patient and community needs as well as best practices for addressing those needs. Participants learned strategies to broaden participation in research and to incorporate diverse patient and community input into their work. The lively and informative discussion helped advance ideas for more collaboration and innovation in this critical area.

Effective patient and community engagement is a central part of NCATS’ work to advance translational science to get more treatments to more patients more quickly. I look forward to sharing more with you as our efforts continue to expand and evolve.

Christopher P. Austin, M.D.
National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences