Future of Public Health: Q&A with Chinedum Ojinnaka, Doctoral Candidate at the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health

May 22, 2014, 2:03 PM

Future of Public Health is an ongoing series focused on the emerging faces in the world of public health. We spoke with Chinedum Ojinnaka, a Doctoral Candidate at the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health and graduate research assistant at the Southwest Rural Health Research Center. Ojinnaka spoke about what helped lead her to the field of public health; her work with the Texas Colon Cancer Screening, Training and Education Program; and where she hopes to go from here.

NewPublicHealth: What encouraged you to pursue a degree and a career in public health?

Chinedum Ojinnaka: I actually trained as a physician in Nigeria and had the opportunity to practice in a rural health center. During my year at the rural health center, I was astounded by some of the problems that could be solved if health professionals knew how to get across to people culturally and to better organize the health system to improve patient navigation.

As a medical student, I had been intrigued by public health and the fact that it was prevention-based. During medical school, it was sad to see patients having to wait for a long time before they could see a doctor. By the time they were examined, the diseases were at a late stage. The frustration was that had the patients been seen earlier, associated complications might have been prevented. This led me to start considering a career path in preventive medicine. After my experience working at the rural health center, I became even more convinced that public health was the path for me.

NPH: Within the field of public health what are your primary interests? It seems like you’re doing a lot of work in rural health and preventative measures, but is there something specifically within those fields that really interests you in your field of study?

Ojinnaka: My particular interest is health disparities, especially with regards to cancer care and women’s health. That’s currently what I’m working on. I’ve been privileged to work as a research assistant on a colorectal cancer prevention program, and we recently received a women’s health grant for a breast and cervical cancer prevention program. My interest is in ensuring that underserved women or women who don’t have adequate access to health care are not left behind in the fight against cancer.

NPH: Do you want to talk about the work that you’re doing in Texas with these two programs?

Ojinnaka: We have a project called the Texas Colon Cancer Screening, Training and Education Program. It’s funded by a grant from the Cancer Prevention Institute of Texas and the principal investigators are Dr. David A. McClellan of the Texas A&M Physicians Family Medicine Center and Dr. Jane Bolin of the Texas A&M School of Public Health. It’s a screening program with training and education components, but it’s not a research program at all. We go into the community to inform people about the program, which offers free colon cancer screenings and free colonoscopies to people who are over age 50 who don’t have insurance or who are underinsured.

In our area, there are four counties that have higher colorectal cancer incidence than the state average and we’re trying to reduce this disparity as much as we can. We inform community members about this program by attending health fairs, church events, and visiting low-income housing areas.

We know that some of the hindrances to patients actually taking advantage of health screening programs like this are travel time, travel distance, and the complexity of the health care system. Part of the grant allows bilingual community health workers to assist patients or participants who would like to take advantage of this program in overcoming these barriers.

As a result, we have been able to increase awareness of colorectal cancer in our community and increase screenings. During the past 2-½ years, 980 colonoscopies have been conducted.  Of those screenings, many abnormal lesions have been detected of which 222 were deemed to be pre-cancerous. Technically you could say that 222 cases of colon cancer have been prevented in our community because of this project.

In addition, those who do participate in the screenings complete a survey, which has helped us identify  barriers to colon cancer screening. We have learned that not all patients can be reached the same way and cultural nuances can influence patients’ decisions to take advantage of these screening programs.

NPH: And you just got a grant to be able to do this for cervical cancer as well?

Ojinnaka: So we just received another grant from the Cancer Prevention Institute of Texas for breast and cervical cancer screening. We’re excited because there are also disparities in our community in these two areas. We will be using the same approach that was used in the colon cancer screening project. We are conducting outreach to people in the community to inform them about this program and encourage them to take advantage of the screenings. The grant gives us the ability to offer pap smears, mammograms, electrosurgical procedures and biopsies. We’ve also had some local surgeons volunteer to take on patients in the event of a cancer diagnosis.

NPH: What is the most surprising lesson that you have learned in your studies and your work?

Ojinnaka: In the second year of my graduate studies, I had the opportunity to work on this grant and I saw the wonderful integration of public health practice and research. It never really occurred to me how these two can go hand-in-hand and how implementing evidence-based research can help to improve quality of life, especially for the underserved. The goal is not just to do the research or report the findings, but also to find ways to implement those findings so that it actually affects people’s lives.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.