By Ann Miller Baker
Amazing advances are being made almost daily in cancer prevention and treatment. But are they meeting the needs of, or even reaching, people throughout our community?
Moffitt created a new leadership position in late 2018 to help us better understand and address our community’s cancer needs through engagement, ongoing dialogue and strong partnerships. Susan Vadaparampil, PhD, MPH, is Moffitt’s first associate center director of Community Outreach, Engagement & Equity. She has spent more than 15 years at Moffitt, researching cancer health disparities and participating in community projects that will serve as a solid foundation for the work ahead. While the National Cancer Institute (NCI) defined the community outreach and engagement portion of her title, Vadaparampil added Equity in light of how imperfectly cancer advances make their way through all segments of society, and reflecting Moffitt’s core value of Inclusion.
“Throughout the nation, only about 50% of Americans receive what we already know works in terms of recommended clinical care,” Vadaparampil notes. “And if you look at who benefits from new advances, you see disparity and inequity.” She adds that disparities are defined not only by race or ethnicity. Your risk of developing or dying from a given cancer might be higher simply because of your gender or even where you live in the U.S. All the more reason, Vadaparampil says, for centers like Moffitt to understand and address what’s needed in our own backyard.
" It’s important to make sure that we’re doing research on the cancers that affect the population within our 15-county catchment area,” says Vadaparampil. “But we also must prioritize the needs of our broader community, in terms of their cancer screening, education and access.”
It’s an issue that has gained the attention of the NCI, which designates Moffitt as the only Comprehensive Cancer Center in Florida and one of only 51 nationwide. NCI designation comes with grant dollars. As part of those grants, all such NCI centers now must demonstrate how knowledge gained from their research benefits the communities they serve. Moffitt Center Director Tom Sellers, PhD, MPH, who serves as the principal investigator for the Cancer Center Support Grant, says our community outreach and engagement effort is now a written and scored component of the grant. “The NCI Office of Cancer Centers has analyzed recently renewed centers and assessed that this addition is the second most important criteria affecting the overall score.”
For Vadaparampil, it’s an acknowledgment of our responsibility to those we serve closest to home. “We need to bring the community to the table,” says Vadaparampil, “to tell us what the most pressing needs are, and to help us understand how to shape solutions that fit our community. That is our mandate as an NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center.”
So what exactly is Moffitt’s community? The NCI defines it in terms of a “catchment area,” a descriptor that outlines a geographic area surrounding the cancer center that is home to a majority of its patients. For Moffitt, it’s a 15-county block of west central Florida that is home to more than 70% of our patients. In actuality, our community extends well beyond immediate surrounding counties to all of Florida, the U.S. and beyond.
Within our catchment area, we already have developed lasting partnerships and outreach programs. “We already have a strong history of engagement with our community,” notes Vadaparampil. These include efforts in:
- Community outreach education such as Moffitt Diversity’s M-POWER program
- Clinical partnerships including Moffitt’s work with BayCare’s Morton Plant Hospital and Moffitt’s developing facility at AdventHealth Wesley Chapel
- Research partnerships like the Moffitt-led Tampa Bay Community Cancer Network and the Florida Academic Cancer Center Alliance
- Philanthropic efforts such as Moffitt’s George Edgecomb Society, which fundraises to accelerate Moffitt research in disparities affecting African Americans and blacks
There are a multitude of other examples throughout Moffitt that Vadaparampil is in the process of inventorying and examining for potential to leverage further across our catchment area. Through collaboration with the Florida Academic Cancer Center Alliance, some of these strategies may even extend across the state. But Vadaparampil says her first order of business has been to engage with stakeholders from these efforts and throughout the community to gain their thoughts on what’s needed — in research, education, prevention, treatment and access.
“It’s important to make sure that we’re doing research on the cancers that affect the population within our 15-county catchment area,” says Vadaparampil. “But we also must prioritize the needs of our broader community, in terms of their cancer screening, education and access.” We need to identify and understand barriers to access as well, says Vadaparampil, to ensure stakeholders like payers and policymakers are also at the table to craft solutions.
“I don’t pretend to have all the answers for what our priorities should be. But I am listening to those who have been doing this work, to hear what is important to our stakeholders. Then, using secondary data from sources like the Florida Cancer Registry, we can better understand what our needs are. The next step will be to bring that information back to our community partners so we can prioritize and develop an action plan that really involves stakeholders from across the cancer center and catchment area to maximize Moffitt’s impact in our community and beyond.”