Karen Kim

Community Outreach Center Focuses on Asian Americans using Community-Engaged Participatory Research

Despite being a doctor, Karen Kim, MD, admittedly knew very little about hepatitis B, a liver disease that claimed her mother’s life almost 20 years ago.

“I was shocked to learn that hepatitis B was a disease that disproportionately affected Asians.  Somehow, nobody ever discussed this during any of my medical training,” she says. “I became determined to make a difference.”

And that she has. Kim, dean for Faculty Affairs and professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, now leads the University’s Center for Asian Health Equity, a partnership between the University and the Asian Health Coalition. Established in July 2015, the center is the first of its kind in Illinois to address the diverse health care needs of Asian Americans.

Additionally, Kim serves as president of the Asian Health Coalition, a non-profit established in 1996, to help improve the health and wellness of Asian Americans through advocacy, capacity building, education, and research.

“In the United States, and particularly in the Midwest, Asians are the fastest growing population right now,” says Kim. “In terms of the national landscape, there are only three federally-funded centers to study Asian Americans in the country—one in California, New York, and Philadelphia—so the Midwest is completely wide open.  We know that Asian health in the Midwest varies significantly from the coasts, simply due to population size and health resources.”

Asian Americans have many characteristics that may inhibit quality of care including language and cultural barriers. In fact, Asian Americans were the first population to have cancer as the leading cause of death.

To combat these health issues, the Agency for Health Research and Quality awarded Kim a three-year grant to study ways to disseminate information into Asian immigrant communities.

“This grant has allowed us to focus and build upon our academic and community partnerships” says Kim. “The community is teaching us the optimal ways to deliver health messaging. We are then testing the effectiveness of these communication channels by using colorectal cancer screening as a pilot model.”

Through this model, which includes a bilingual social marketing campaign, they’ve already seen a significant increase in the number of participants aware of and screened for colorectal cancer.

“We tend to think that education will lead to behavior change, but we know that this is not the case,” says Kim. “What we try to do is create a system where the community drives the interest and we facilitate the resources and linkage to care.”

A vital part of the center’s mission is community-based participatory research, which it conducts with the more than 25 Asian American organizations associated with the Asian Health Coalition.

This form of research allows the center to build community capacity and sustainability. For instance, Kim and her team have worked extensively on educating Asian Americans about hepatitis B in a community-based capacity. In partnership with multiple Asian community-based organizations, more than 15,000 individuals have been screened and/or vaccinated against hepatitis B over the past 10 years. Most recently, coalition partners worked to increase state funding for hepatitis B education and screening.

Despite the model minority stereotype, mental health has become a growing crisis among Asian Americans. In fact, Asian American women have the highest suicide rate among women 65 and older as well as the second highest rate among women 15 to 24. Posing additional challenges are language barriers and a lack of culturally specific providers. Roughly 70 percent of Asian Americans are foreign born and 35 percent have limited English proficiency, which is higher than any other population.

“We’re interested in obtaining a training grant so that we can train the next generation of students—regardless of their racial or ethnic background—to focus on Asian health disparities so there’s more awareness and research,” says Kim.

The center seeks to partner with other departments on campus like the Harris School of Public Policy to assist with the implementation of new policies, as well as the Office of Civic Engagement. These connections, Kim anticipates, will help address social determinants of health, which will lead to improved quality of services and eventually health equity.

“Our core mission is to push research,” adds Kim. “Only 10 percent of all the work that’s done in Asian communities is ever published so there’s a lack of knowledge. Being able to disseminate information to the broader community is paramount.”

– Tanya R. Cochran

Read more about Kim’s work and research here

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