Keith Elder, PhD, MPH, is accustomed to breaking new ground in his work. During his term as a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) New Connections: Increasing the Diversity of RWJF Programming scholar (2009-2011), Elder tackled the seldom-studied field of Black men’s health and uncovered critical issues about how this population receives health care.
So it’s only natural that Elder intends to encourage his students to take a broad, interdisciplinary view of public health in his new position as chair of Saint Louis University’s School of Public Health, Department of Health Management and Policy. On January 1, Elder will take the helm to continue and expand on the university’s commitment to serving populations that are disproportionately at risk for poor health and have limited access to quality medical care.
“Here at Saint Louis University, we have a vulnerable-populations workgroup,” Elder says. “We concentrate on meeting the needs of underserved groups with high mortality rates, such as the elderly, Black men and women, and rural populations.”
Making an Impact on Public Health
Like so many young people interested in medicine, Elder started out as an undergraduate student who planned to become a physician. “My PhD is in health policy, but I started out pre-med,” he explains. While touring hospitals before applying to medical school, Elder became aware of his desire to make a broad impact on the disproportionate burden of disease experienced by certain groups of people. “That’s when a mentor introduced me to public health and helped me see that it was a great opportunity for me to make a difference,” he says.
New Connections creates an environment so encouraging… that you feel like you can do anything.” -Keith Elder, PhD
Elder was able to further his goal after becoming an RWJF New Connections grantee. “I came to New Connections as a faculty member at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. I entered the program knowing that I wanted to do research on the health of Black men—one of the most understudied populations, with one of the highest rates of chronic disease and other health problems. But I had found that there were very few resources out there for funding to study Black men’s health.”
After beginning to explore the many contradictions in existing data about how Black men access care, Elder found that they were more likely than other groups to receive a lower quality of health care and less likely to use health services properly. His research was designed to find out how to remedy these two problems.
“Our study [currently under review] found that physician/patient communication is the most important factor for Black men as it relates to rating their personal physician,” Elder says. “In addition, Black men appear to be very disengaged during health care encounters, a fact that influences whether they comply with treatment recommendations or requests for follow-up visits. Black men tend to rate most aspects of their health care at 80 or above on a 100-point scale, however, they appear to have problems with getting care quickly.”
Overall, Elder says, the literature is pretty clear. “Black men appear to be one of the most disconnected groups when it comes to health care. They are also one of the hardest groups to recruit and keep in studies. It’s clear that we need more gender-specific analyses of health system interaction issues. I am extremely grateful to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation New Connections program for supporting my research in this area.”
Training the Next Generation
With his new appointment at Saint Louis University, Elder hopes to teach his students about the broad range of factors that affect health. “My first objective is to make certain our students are prepared for the workforce by providing more hands-on experiences for them to work in diverse communities. I also hope to strengthen alumni ties and conduct more research across the disciplines of the university because public health encompasses epidemiology, environmental health, biostatistics, and health management and policy.”
But Elder also intends to offer students the type of inspiration he gained as part of an RWJF program. He says he now recognizes just how critical that support is to building a career. “My New Connections experience was absolutely invaluable. I wouldn’t be here—at Saint Louis University conducting this type of research—if not for the program. The networking, mentoring and the relationships I’ve developed through the national New Connections conferences have given me critical insights into what it takes to achieve in academia.”
Noting the isolation that many academics from underrepresented backgrounds experience when building their careers, Elder adds, “I strongly believe that without New Connections, a lot of scholars from these populations would not be successful in academia. New Connections creates an environment so embracing, so encouraging that once you leave the program, you feel like you can do anything. It’s almost like going to church.”
Learn more about New Connections: Increasing the Diversity of RWJF Programming.
For an overview of RWJF scholar and fellow opportunities visit RWJFLeaders.org.