NIH Collaboration Seeks to Help Understand U.S. Burden of Health Disparities: Why Your County Matters
Since the early 1990s, federal support of research has increased to understand minority health and identify and address health disparities. Research in these areas has evolved from a starting point of developing a basic descriptive understanding of health disparities and who is most affected. Now, it is discovering the underlying complexity of factors involved in health outcomes to inform interventions and reduce these disparities.
One of these many factors is where we live, learn, work, and play and how that affects different people. A group of NIH scientists and their colleagues recently published a study in the journal The Lancet that they hope is a step toward better understanding geographic disparities and their role in health equity .
As Director of NIH’s National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), I worked with NIMHD’s Scientific Director, Anna María Nápoles, to conceive the study and establish the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) U.S. Health Disparities Collaborators at NIH with five NIH Institutes and two Offices. Through this collaboration, NIH funded the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), University of Washington to conduct the analysis. The IHME has worked for 30 years on the GBD project in over 200 countries.
The Lancet paper offered the first comprehensive U.S. county-level life expectancy estimates to highlight the significant gaps that persist among racial and ethnic populations across the nation. The analysis revealed that despite overall life expectancy gains of 2.3 years from 2000–2019, Black populations experienced shorter life expectancy than White populations.
In addition, American Indian and Alaska Native populations’ life expectancy did not improve and, in fact, decreased in most counties. We found national-level life expectancy advantages for Hispanic/Latino and Asian populations ranging from three to seven years, respectively, compared to White populations. But there were notable exceptions for Hispanic/Latino populations in selected counties in the Southwest.
Certainly the most-alarming trend identified in the paper was that during the study’s last 10 years (2010–2019), life expectancy growth was stagnant across all races and ethnicities. Moreover, 60 percent of U.S. counties experienced a decrease in life expectancy.
While these findings provide an important frame for how disparities exist along many dimensions—by race, ethnicity, and geographic region—they also highlight these differences within our local communities. This level of detail offers an unprecedented opportunity for researchers and public health leaders to focus on where these differences are the most prominent, and possibly give us a clearer picture on what can be done about it.
These data raise many important questions, too. What can we learn from places that are doing well in caring for their most disadvantaged populations? How can these factors be sustained, replicated, and transferred to other places? Are there current policies and/or community services that contribute to or inhibit gaining access to appropriate clinical care, healthy and affordable food, good schools, and/or economic opportunities?
To help answer these questions, the GBD U.S. Health Disparities Collaborators at NIH, in partnership with IHME, have developed a comprehensive database and interactive data visualization tool that provides life expectancy and all-cause mortality by race and ethnicity for 3,110 U.S. counties from 2000-2019. Efforts are underway to expand the database to include causes of death and risk factors by race/ethnicity and education, as well as to disaggregate some of the major racial-ethnic groups.
Using IHME’s established model of comprehensive and replicable data collection, the joint effort aims to improve access to health data resources, bolster analytic approaches, and deliver user-friendly estimates to the wider research and health policy community. The collection’s standardized, comprehensive, historical, and real-time data can be the cornerstone for efforts to address disparities and advance health equity.
It is important to note that the Lancet study only included data from before the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic’s disproportionate effect on overall mortality and life expectancy has exacerbated existing health disparities. Disaggregated data are essential in helping to understand the underlying mechanisms of health disparities and guiding the development and implementation of interventions that address local needs.
As a clinician scientist, I have made a personal commitment at NIMHD to foster and encourage data collection with standardized measures, harmonization, and efficient data sharing to help us explore the nuances within all populations and their communities. Without these guiding principles for managing data, inequities remain unseen and unaddressed. Scientists, clinicians, and policymakers can all potentially benefit from this work if we use the data to inform our actions. It is an opportunity to implement real change in our NIH-wide combined efforts to reduce health disparities and improve quality of life and longevity for all populations.
 Life expectancy by county, race, and ethnicity in the USA, 2000-19: a systematic analysis of health disparities. GBD US Health Disparities Collaborators. Lancet. 2022 Jul 2;400(10345):25-38.
Understand Health Disparities Series (National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities/NIH)
HD Pulse (NIMHD)
Institute for Health Metrics (University of Washington, Seattle)
NIH Support: The members of the GBD U.S. Health Disparities Collaborators at NIH include: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Cancer Institute; National Institute on Aging; National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases; NIH Office of Disease Prevention; NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Science Research
Note: Dr. Lawrence Tabak, who performs the duties of the NIH Director, has asked the heads of NIH’s Institutes and Centers (ICs) to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog to highlight some of the interesting science that they support and conduct. This is the 17th in the series of NIH IC guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.
As I sit down to write this blog, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a widespread impact, and we’re all trying to figure out our “new normal.” For some, figuring out the new normal has been especially difficult, and that’s something for all of us to consider during September, which is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. It’s such an important time to share what we know about suicide prevention and consider how we can further this knowledge to those in need.
At NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), we’ve been asking ourselves: What have we learned about suicide risk and prevention during the pandemic? And how should our research evolve to reflect a rapidly changing world?
Over the last few years, people have been concerned about the pandemic’s impact on suicide rates. So far, data suggest that the overall suicide rate in the U.S. has remained steady. But there is concerning evidence that the pandemic has disproportionately affected suicide risk in historically underserved communities.
For example, data suggest that people in minority racial and ethnic groups experienced greater increases in suicidal thoughts during the pandemic . Additional data indicate that suicide rates may be rising among some young adult racial and ethnic minority groups .
Structural racism and other social and environmental factors are major drivers of mental health disparities, and NIMH continues to invest in research to understand how these social determinants of health influence suicide risk. This research includes investigations into the effects of long-term and daily discrimination.
To mitigate these effects, it is critical that we identify specific underlying mechanisms so that we can develop targeted interventions. To this end, NIMH is supporting research in underserved communities to identify suicide risk and the protective factors and effective strategies for reducing this risk (e.g., RFA-MH-22-140, RFA-MH-21-188, RFA-MH-21-187). There are important lessons to be learned that we can’t afford to miss.
Building Solid Foundations
The pandemic also underscored the urgent need to support youth mental health. Indeed, in December 2021, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued the Advisory on Protecting Youth Mental Health, calling attention to increasing rates of depression and suicidal behaviors among young people. Crucially, the advisory highlighted the need to “recognize that mental health is an essential part of overall health.”
At NIMH, we know that establishing a foundation for good mental health early on can support a person’s overall health and well-being over a lifetime. In light of this, we are investing in research to identify effective prevention efforts that can help set kids on positive mental health trajectories early in life.
Additionally, by re-analyzing research investments already made, we are looking to see whether these early prevention efforts have meaningful impacts on later suicide risk and mental health outcomes. These findings may help to improve a range of systems—such as schools, social services, and health care—to better support kids’ mental health needs.
Improving and Expanding Access
The pandemic has also shown us that telehealth can be an effective means of delivering and increasing access to mental health care. The NIMH has supported research examining telehealth as a tool for improving suicide prevention services, including the use of digital tools that can help extend provider reach and support individuals at risk for suicide.
At the same time, NIMH is investing in work to understand the most effective ways to help providers use evidence-based approaches to prevent suicide. This research helps inform federal partners and others about the best ways to support policies and practices that help prevent suicide deaths.
In July, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) launched the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, a three-digit suicide prevention and mental health crisis number. This service builds on the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, allowing anyone to call or text 988 to connect with trained counselors and mental health services. Research supported by NIMH helped build the case for such lifelines, and now we’re calling for research aimed at identifying the best ways to help people use this evolving crisis support system.
With these and many other efforts, we are hopeful that people who are at risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors will be able to access the evidence-based support and services they need. This National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, I’d like to issue a call to action: Help raise awareness by sharing resources on how to recognize the warning signs for suicide and how to get help. By working together, we can prevent suicide and save lives.
 Racial and ethnic disparities in the prevalence of stress and worry, mental health conditions, and increased substance use among adults during the COVID-19 pandemic – United States, April and May 2020. McKnight-Eily LR, Okoro CA, Strine TW, Verlenden J, Hollis ND, Njai R, Mitchell EW, Board A, Puddy R, Thomas C. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2021 Feb 5;70(5):162-166.
 One Year In: COVID-19 and Mental Health. National Institute of Mental Health Director’s Message. April 9, 2021.
988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Rockville, MD)
Help for Mental Illnesses (National Institute of Mental Health/NIH)
Suicide Prevention (NIMH)
Note: Dr. Lawrence Tabak, who performs the duties of the NIH Director, has asked the heads of NIH’s Institutes and Centers (ICs) to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog to highlight some of the interesting science that they support and conduct. This is the 16th in the series of NIH IC guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.
Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” At NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), we believe that educating future and current scientists from diverse backgrounds benefits the entire biomedical research enterprise, changing the world through advances in disease diagnosis, treatment, and prevention.
As the summer winds down and students and educators embark on a new school year, I thought I’d highlight some of our educational resources that complement science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) curricula. I’d also like to draw your attention to training programs designed to inspire and support research careers.
STEM Programs and Resources from NIH
The NIGMS Science Education Partnership Awards (SEPAs) are resources that provide opportunities for pre-K-12 students from underserved communities to access STEM educational resources. It lets them aspire to careers in health research.
The SEPA grants in almost every state support innovative, research-based, science education programs, furthering NIGMS’ mission to ensure a strong and diverse research ecosystem. Resources generated through SEPAs are free, mapped to state and national teaching standards for STEM, and rigorously evaluated for effectiveness. These resources include mobile laboratories, health exhibits in museums and science centers, educational resources for students, and professional development for teachers.
One SEPA program at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine, West Lafayette, IN, pairs veterinarians from their nationwide “superhero” League of VetaHumanz with local schools or community centers that support underserved students. These professional veterinarians, also from diverse backgrounds, strive to help young students from underrepresented groups envision future careers caring for animals.
Another SEPA program at Baylor University, Waco, TX, is increasing access to chemistry labs for high schoolers with blindness. It uses a robotic reactor with enhanced safety features to eliminate many dangers of synthetic organic chemistry. Students with blindness can control the robot to conduct experiments in a similar fashion to their sighted counterparts. The robot is housed within an airtight, blast-proof glove box, and it can perform common chemistry operations such as weighing and dispensing solid or liquid reagents; delivering solvents; combining reagents with the solvents; and stirring, heating, or cooling the reaction mixtures.
As noted in the 2021 report from the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, “equity and inclusion are fundamental prerequisites for making high-quality STEM education accessible to all Americans and will maximize the creative capacity of tomorrow’s workforce.” I believe this statement falls right in line with the spirit of SEPAs.
New NIH-Wide STEM Teaching Resources Website
To help educators find free science education content, we recently launched a STEM teaching resources website. It includes NIH-wide teaching materials as well as those from SEPA programs for grades K-12, categorized by different health and research topic areas.
The NIGMS free educational resource Pathways, designed for educators and aspiring scientists in grades 6-12, is one of many resources available through the STEM website. Each issue of Pathways provides information about basic biomedical science and research careers and includes a student magazine, teacher lesson plans, and interactives such as Kahoot! classroom quizzes. Our most recent vaccine science issue teaches students how COVID-19 vaccines work in the body and introduces them to scientists dedicated to vaccine research.
Programs for Early Career Scientists
While SEPA grants focus on future scientists (and their educators) in grades pre-K-12, NIGMS also has a robust research training portfolio for those at the undergraduate through postdoctoral and professional levels. These programs aim to enhance diversity by engaging and training scientists from diverse backgrounds early in their careers.
At the undergraduate level, programs like Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) provide students from diverse backgrounds with mentorship and career development. We recently highlighted the MARC program at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, on our Biomedical Beat blog showing the program’s impact on students.
At the other end of the spectrum, our Maximizing Opportunities for Scientific and Academic Independent Careers (MOSAIC) program helps promising postdoctoral researchers from diverse backgrounds transition into independent faculty careers. The MOSAIC scholars become part of a career development program to expand their professional networks and gain additional skills and mentoring through scientific societies. You can learn more about each of these impressive early career scientists on our MOSAIC Scholars webpages.
At NIGMS, we’re dedicated to increasing the diversity of the biomedical research workforce. Through STEM content and outreach, as well as scientist training resources, we focus on emphasizing diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. This holds true with funding and programming for current scientists, and in the inspiration and training of future scientists.
SEPA Award (National Institute of General Medical Sciences/NIH)
The League of VetaHumanz: Encouraging Kids to Use Their Powers for Good! (Biomedical Beat Blog/NIGMS)
Catching Up With ReMARCable Vanderbilt Graduates (Biomedical Beat Blog/NIGMS)
Note: Dr. Lawrence Tabak, who performs the duties of the NIH Director, has asked the heads of NIH’s Institutes and Centers (ICs) to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog to highlight some of the interesting science that they support and conduct. This is the 15th in the series of NIH IC guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen unprecedented, rapid scientific collaboration, as experts around the world in discrete, previously disconnected fields, have found ways to collaborate to face a common cause. For example, physicists helped respiratory specialists understand how virus particles could spread in air, leading to improved mitigation strategies. Specialists in cardiovascular science, neuroscience, immunology, and other fields are now working together to understand and address Long COVID. Over the past two years, we have also seen remarkable international sharing of epidemiological data and information on effects of vaccines.
Science is increasingly a team activity, which is true for many fields, not just biomedicine. The professional diversity of research teams reflects the increased complexity of the questions science is called upon to answer. This is especially obvious in the study of the brain, which is the most complex system known to us.
The NIH’s Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative, with the goal of vastly enhancing neuroscience through new technologies, includes research teams with neuroscientists, engineers, mathematicians, physicists, data scientists, ethicists, and more. Nearly half (47 percent) of grant awards have multiple principal investigators.
Besides the BRAIN Initiative, other multi-institute NIH research projects are applying team science to complex research questions, such as those related to neurodevelopment, addiction, and pain. The Helping to End Addiction Long-term® Initiative, or NIH HEAL Initiative®, created a team-based research framework to advance promising pain therapeutics quickly to clinical testing.
In the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, which is led by NIDA in close partnership with NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), and other NIH institutes, 21 research centers are collecting behavioral, biospecimen, and neuroimaging data from 11,878 children from age 10 through their teens. Teams led by experts in adolescent psychiatry, developmental psychology, and pediatrics interview participants and their families. These experts then gather a battery of health metrics from psychological, cognitive, sociocultural, and physical assessments, including collection and analysis of various kinds of biospecimens (blood, saliva). Further, experts in biophysics gather information on the structure and function of participants’ brains every two years.
A similar study of young children in the first decade of life beginning with the prenatal period, the HEALthy Brain and Child Development (HBCD) study, supported by HEAL, NIDA, and several other NIH institutes and centers, is now underway at 25 research sites across the country. A range of scientific specialists, similar to that in the ABCD study, is involved in this effort. In this case, they are aided by experts in obstetric care and in infant neuroimaging.
For both of these studies, teams of data scientists validate and curate all the information generated and make it available to researchers across the world. This makes it possible to investigate complex questions such as human neurodevelopmental diversity and the effects of genes and social experiences and their relation to mental health. More than half of the publications using ABCD data have been authored by non-ABCD investigators taking advantage of the open-access format.
Yet, institutions that conduct and fund science—including NIH—have been slow to support and reward collaboration. Because authorship and funding are so important in tenure and promotion decisions at universities, for example, an individual’s contribution to larger, multi-investigator projects on which they may not be the grantee or lead author on a study publication may carry less weight.
For this reason, early-career scientists may be particularly reluctant to collaborate on team projects. Among the recommendations of a 2015 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) report, Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science, was that universities and other institutions should find effective ways to give credit for team-based work to assist promotion and tenure committees.
The strongest teams will be diverse in other respects, not just scientific expertise. Besides more actively fostering productive collaborations across disciplines, NIH is making a more concerted effort to promote racial equity and inclusivity in our research workforce, both through the NIH UNITE Initiative and through Institute-specific initiatives like NIDA’s Racial Equity Initiative.
To promote diversity, inclusivity, and accessibility in research, the BRAIN Initiative recently added a requirement in most of its funding opportunity announcements (FOAs) that has applicants include a Plan for Enhancing Diverse Perspectives (PEDP) in the proposed research. The PEDPs are evaluated and scored during the peer review as part of the holistic considerations used to inform funding decisions. These long-overdue measures will not only ensure that NIH-funded science is more diverse, but they are also important steps toward studying and addressing social determinants of health and the health disparities that exist for so many conditions.
Increasingly, scientific discovery is as much about exploring new connections between different kinds of researchers as it is about finding new relationships among different kinds of scientific databases. The challenges before us are great—ending the COVID pandemic, finding a solution to the addiction and overdose crisis, and so many others—and increased collaboration between scientists will give us the greatest chance to successfully overcome these challenges.
Nora Volkow’s Blog (National Institute on Drug Abuse/NIH)
Racial Equity Initiative (NIDA)
Note: Acting NIH Director Lawrence Tabak has asked the heads of NIH’s Institutes and Centers (ICs) to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog to highlight some of the interesting science that they support and conduct. This is the 13th in the series of NIH IC guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.