Jul 17 2014
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RWJF Scholars in the News: Gun violence, suicide, ‘structural’ versus ‘cultural’ competency, and more.

Around the country, print, broadcast, and online media outlets are covering the groundbreaking work of Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) leaders, scholars, fellows, alumni, and grantees. Some recent examples:

An NPR story quotes RWJF Health & Society Scholars program alumnus Andrew Papachristos, PhD, citing his extensive research on gun violence. Papachristos criticizes the lack of context in media coverage of violence, noting that incidents such as the series of shootings over the Fourth of July weekend in Chicago tend to be treated simply as a long stretch of violent incidents. “Treating Chicagoland violence as merely a tally necessarily dehumanizes its victims, but it also obscures so much of the larger story about that violence. It's data without context.” Not only is the murder rate steadily declining in Chicago, but there is a massive disparity in victims of these crimes: “Eighty-five percent of violence—any shootings—happens among 5 percent of people,” Papachristos says.

In an article about libertarianism and state laws related to guns and other topics, the Economist cites a study about the social costs of gun ownership by RWJF Investigator Award in Health Policy Research recipients Philip Cook, PhD, and Jens Ludwig, PhD. It finds that “more guns empirically lead to more gun-related violence, largely because legally purchased guns somehow end up in the hands of criminals via theft,” gun shows, and online sales, which are largely unregulated. To address these issues, Cook and Ludwig suggest making it costlier to buy guns in high-crime areas, and improving the records used to screen gun buyers by including more information on possible mental-health problems, among other proposals. (Free registration required to view article.)

A study co-authored by RWJF Health & Society Scholars program alumnus Alexander Tsai, PhD, MD, finds that men who are more socially connected are half as likely to commit suicide as men considered loners, NBC News reports. The study looks at data on nearly 35,000 men, ages 40 to 75, and finds that those who are more isolated are at greater risk, even if they are not mentally ill. “Public health practitioners think about things like cardiovascular disease as warranting public health attention,” says Tsai, suggesting that suicide may also need attention.

Instructions that direct parents to use “a teaspoon” to measure liquid medication for children increase the risk of pouring the wrong dose, finds a study led by Shonna Yin, MD, MDS, an RWJF Physician Faculty Scholars program alumna. CBS 8 (San Diego) reports that Yin and her colleagues encourage the use of millimeter-based dosing devices, such as an oral syringe, since 41 percent of parents studied made a mistake in measuring what their doctors prescribed in teaspoons or tablespoons.

Shifting the way medical students are trained, to focus less on “cultural” competency and more on “structural” competency, could help address racial health disparities, according to RWJF Health & Society Scholars program alumna Helena Hansen, MD, PhD. In an interview with ColorLines, Hansen says that the idea behind cultural competency initially was to listen to the patient and learn about her or his world view, but in practice it often reinforces racial stereotyping. Hansen says “clinical training must shift its gaze from an exclusive focus on the individual encounter to include the organization of institutions and policies, as well as of neighborhoods and cities, if clinicians are to impact stigma-related health inequalities.”

Science World Report writes about research from RWJF Health & Society Scholars program alumni Amar Hamoudi, PhD, and Jenna Nobles, PhD, that shows girls may be more likely than boys to survive in the womb throughout the stress of a troubled marriage. The study shows a couple’s level of relationship conflict at a given time also predicts the gender of children born to the couple later. Women reporting higher levels of marital issues are more likely to give birth to girls in later years. “Girls may well be surviving stressful pregnancies that boys can’t survive,” Hamoudi concludes. The findings run counter to previous research that has been interpreted to suggest that female children were actually the cause of more marital stress, the researchers said.

People tend to pick friends who are as genetically similar to themselves as their fourth cousins would be, the Washington Post reports. RWJF Investigator Award recipient Nicholas Christakis, MD, co-authored a study that looks at 1,367 friendship pairs and their genetic markers and variants. He found that friends are more likely than strangers to share many genetic variants. The research suggests friendship could be a significant factor in the recent evolution of the human species, Christakis says, noting that someone’s evolutionary fitness “depends not only on [their] own genotype, but also on the genotype of [their] friends.” The study was also covered by NPR and CNN.

After surveying 5,000 people from 83 countries, RWJF Health & Society Scholar Matthew Killingsworth, PhD, and a colleague offer seven tips to help alleviate a bad mood, reports The Week. In addition to confirming that people are happiest while having sex, exercising, or socializing, the study finds that smiling, comparing yourself to someone less fortunate, performing complex cognitive tasks, and getting adequate sleep are the most effective ways to quickly increase happiness.

Two hundred Medicare patients in Phoenix are set to receive sensors for their asthma inhalers that will track how often they use their medication, and alert physicians or caregivers via a smartphone app when they are in use, reports Crain’s Detroit Business. The device was developed by Propeller Health, a startup company founded by David Van Sickle, PhD, MA, an RWJF Health & Society Scholars program alumnus. HIT Consultant and mHealth News also cover Van Sickle’s research.

In an opinion piece for the Fresno Bee, Edward Walker, PhD, writes that advocacy groups claiming to be grassroots organizations representing individual members are often actually funded primarily by corporations and industry groups. Walker describes this as “opinion laundering,” through which groups present their ideas as those expressed by everyday citizens. “I’ve spent the better part of the last decade investigating campaigns like these and the lucrative consulting firms hired to manufacture grassroots participation. We assume that these strategies are ‘weapons of the weak,’ when in fact even Fortune 500 behemoths—by my estimates, 40 percent of them—frequently find that they need to mobilize the grassroots when facing threatening policy changes.” The issue becomes problematic when “grassroots” organizations begin using fake email addresses or offering financial incentives for participation by “supporters,” writes Walker, an RWJF Scholars in Health Policy Research alumnus.

Tags: Behavioral/mental health, Community violence, HC Website Feature, Health & Society Scholars, Human Capital, Investigator Awards in Health Policy Research, Media Coverage, Physician Faculty Scholars, Research, Research & Analysis, Scholars and fellows, Scholars in Health Policy Research