TAMPA — Dr. Richard Roetzheim knows that African-American and Hispanic women are more likely to be diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer than whites. He also knows that black men are 71 percent more likely to develop prostate cancer than white men.
He knows such things from 20 years of research at the University of South Florida, and from working in places like the Judeo Christian Health Clinic and the Bridge Clinic in Tampa.
"I've seen first-hand the remarkable differences in care people can get," based on such factors as insurance, financial situation, education and ethnicity, Roetzheim said. "That's always motivated me to learn more about health disparities."
Now, a $6 million grant will help to discover why these differences exist and how to fix them.
USF and the Moffitt Cancer Center received the five-year federal grant to create a National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities Center of Excellence. The USF-Moffitt center, which will focus on cancer-related differences, will be one of 50 centers nationwide. The other two Florida sites will be at the University of Miami and Florida International University in Miami.
Though health disparities among ethnic groups have been studied for decades, the issue has gained new focus as the federal government works to overhaul the nation's health care system. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius recently released a report that highlighted differences between whites and minority groups in areas such as obesity, diabetes and HIV/AIDS.
"It's time for Democrats and Republicans to come together to pass reforms this year that help reduce disparities and give all Americans the care they need and deserve," Sebelius said.
The center will be led by Roetzheim of USF and B. Lee Green, a vice president at Moffitt, who leads its diversity initiatives. Leslene Gordon of the Hillsborough County Health Department will be the center's community director.
About 18 people from Moffitt and USF are already spending part of their time working for the new center, Roetzheim said. The first project will investigate biological factors that may contribute to the disproportionately high rates of prostate cancer among African-American men. Besides being more likely to develop prostate cancer, black men are also three times more likely to die from the disease than white men.
The center doesn't have full-time staff or its own building, though Roetzheim said those are goals. While the five-year NIH grant is aimed at getting the center started, more money will be needed for it to grow.
The center will reach out to minority and poorer communities to identify areas of cancer research that are important to the people who live there.
"Community involvement must be central to the work of the center," Green said.
"We don't want to be a bunch of researchers in an ivory tower trying to solve everybody's problems," Roetzheim added. "We really do need the input of the community to understand the issues they face, the resources they have, and the problems that they're dealing with."
He already has breast cancer on the new center's list. African-American women have higher breast cancer mortality rates than whites. "We really don't have a good explanation for that," he said.
Roetzheim said that when he started doing research on the topic, he thought maybe many African-American women didn't have health insurance.
"But when we did some studies, that seemed to explain only a tiny fraction of the disparity," Roetzheim said. "There's still more to be explained."
Richard Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8330.