Just a year after becoming vice president of Health Equity and associate dean of Health Equity at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, Consuelo Wilkins, M.D., was recently named as a second principal investigator for Vanderbilt’s Institute for Clinical Translational Science Award (CTSA). There she will promote health equity initiatives, community engagement and recruiting those who have not been well represented in medical research – including disadvantaged and minority populations.
According to the National Institutes of Health, the CTSA Program supports high-quality translational science and clinical research locally, regionally and nationally; fosters scientific and operational innovation to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of clinical translational research; and creates, provides and disseminates domain-specific translational science training and workforce development.
Wilkins said there are very few CTSAs that focus on health disparities and that have minorities as principal investigators. She said while having more diverse research participants is important, there needs to be a paradigm shift in the way one thinks of research.
“We have to focus on getting more minority researchers, more individuals who understand diverse backgrounds and come from communities that have been impacted by poor health outcomes, and then we also have to shift the way we think about research,” Wilkins said. “A lot of what happens in research enterprise does not start to think about disparities until the end – when we need to think about disparities at the beginning.”
Wilkins said that most of the time, researchers are not necessarily spending a lot of time thinking about the differences of genetics, ancestry and race. She said ancestry is tied more to genetics – whereas race is really a social construct. Although there is a lot of overlap, Wilkins said there are important differences.
“The most important impact of race on health is actually racism,” Wilkins said.
“How you experience life as a person who is a racial or ethnic minority with the discrimination, structural barriers to getting care, the stress of having to deal with big issues, like obvious racism, but also micro-aggression, lack of access to food in the communities – all of those things are not biological. They are social, political, cultural things, but they have a huge impact on your health.”
Before moving to Nashville to lead the Vanderbilt-Meharry Alliance, Wilkins, a nationally recognized expert in stakeholder engagement and former medical accuracy editor for The American, was an associate professor in the Department of at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. She served as founding director of the Center for Community Health and Partnerships in the Institute for Public Health, co-director of the Center for Community Engaged Research in the CTSA, and director of "Our Community, Our Health," a collaborative program with Saint Louis University to disseminate culturally relevant health information and facilitate community-academic partnerships to address health disparities.
“I’m thrilled to join the CTSA leadership and consider it a privilege to work with a team that has distinguished Vanderbilt as one of the preeminent clinical and translational research programs in the country,” Wilkins said.
An $8 million a year federal grant award supports Vanderbilt’s CTSA Institute, which since 2007 has fostered innovation development, such as the BioVU DNA repository, an online national volunteer recruitment registry known as ResearchMatch, and a web-based research management application REDCap, which is used worldwide.
“We are well positioned to expand our work to address inequities in health outcomes and develop novel approaches to some of the most complex health conditions,” she said.
Wilkins will also oversee development of methods for disseminating results to persons who are participants in research.
“With the addition of Dr. Wilkins in a stronger leadership role we are even more poised to do just that, and to actually serve as a trailblazer in the vital goal of improving health equity,” said Gordon Bernard, M.D., principal investigator of the Vanderbilt CTSA since its inception in 2007. Bernard is the Melinda Owen Bass Professor of Medicine and executive vice president for Research at VUMC.
Until a successor is named, Wilkins will remain executive director of the Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance and will continue to work closely with Vanderbilt and Meharry Medical College to ensure their investigators have access to expert faculty collaborators, core resources and services to catalyze innovative research.
Wilkins said she intends to use her new position to move from research to action: “I’m hoping we will begin to shift thinking early on as to why there are differences and how we can understand the differences in a way we can actually act on them, as opposed to saying, ‘Oh, these communities are just impacted by poor health.’”