Members of the Arizona Prevention Research Center team
The Arizona Prevention Research Center (AzPRC) was established in 1998 by Joel Meister, PhD, and Mike Leibowitz, PhD, as part of the Center for Disease Control-funded network of 26 academic research centers that study chronic illnesses prevention. When the College of Public Health opened its doors in 2000, the center moved under its umbrella.
In October 2019, CDC funding of $7.5 million was awarded through 2024, and AzPRC continues collaborations with more than 20 community partners, including large health centers, state and county health departments, and grassroots organizations to develop, test and evaluate public health interventions that address issues in underserved communities in Southwest Arizona.
For its Core Research Project, AzPRC is studying the implementation of a Community Health Worker (CHW) intervention that focuses on building social networks and leveraging existing community resources to improve overall health and quality of life among predominantly Mexican-descent Latinxs in Arizona.
AzPRC is a model of community-based participatory research, in which faculty, staff and members of the Community Action Board identify problems and develop research projects together. They have focused on health problems including diabetes, heart disease, cancer, asthma, adaption to hearing loss, behavioral health care delivery and quality of life, building on research and outreach pursued by faculty over the past 40 years. They also have worked on environmental and policy change to create healthy environments in border communities.
“Our partnerships ensure we are asking research questions that are meaningful to communities and result in effective and sustainable solutions,” said Scott Carvajal, AzPRC director since 2010.
Championing Community Health Workers in Arizona
Left to right: CHW Alicia Sander, Maia Ingram, MPH,
and CHW Conchita Somoza celebrate an important
milestone towards CHW Voluntary Certification.
Community Health Workers (CHW) bridge the gap in the health care system by serving as a trusted source of health information and education for community members and by advocating on important health issues in the community.
In 1987, several of the current AzPRC faculty, staff, and community partners established the first CHW program in Arizona. Comienzo Sano (Healthy Start) focused on increasing prenatal care for the farm worker community in Yuma County. The program is now sustained through state funding to county health programs across the state. The AzPRC continues to develop innovative interventions with CHWs in clinics and community agencies throughout Arizona, addressing current health needs and connecting people with services.
“Our partnership efforts culminated in the passage of Arizona CHW Voluntary Certification in 2018. With this law we hope to ensure this workforce has sustainable funding and compensation, as well as opportunities for advancement,” said Maia Ingram, AzPRC co-director.
Studying stress-related disease in border communities
In June 2020, the AzPRC team was awarded a $2.4 million grant from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, funding research to identify cultural characteristics, such as family support and social ties, that help keep stress from causing chronic disease among Latinxs. The partners seek to develop new health promotion programs that benefit Mexican-descent populations around the country.
The team is adapting to reflect the realities of COVID-19. “We are thinking through the ways community health workers continue to help their communities, whether it’s linking people to tests or helping to manage stress or other conditions that are exacerbated by the pandemic,” Dr. Carvajal said.
Like many AzPRC projects, this one builds on years of collaboration with a community partner. Campesinos Sin Fronteras, an organization that pioneered programs to promote the health of farm workers and their families in Yuma County, was founded by Emma Torres—a farm worker who got her start as a CHW with Comienzo Sano (Healthy Start), AzPRC’s inaugural CHW program.
Benefits of community collaborations
The benefits of community collaboration exceed the research project findings and public health interventions.
“These are long term, evolving relationships with partners that provide numerous opportunities for our public health students as well as campus-wide training experiences,” said Jill Guernsey de Zapien, who joined the Rural Health Office in 1984. Guernsey de Zapien served as associate dean for community programs for 16 years, and has been involved in community-based public health interventions, policies and research in Arizona and throughout the Southwest and Mexico for more than 30 years.
“Students get to see the model of incredible nonprofit organizations that are serving community members in ways that no one else is, and they can get involved in issues that make an impact in the community.”
Enthusiastic and dedicated collaboration has been part of the university for years, Guernsey de Zapien said. “There’s a long-term synergy and common agenda between the centers and the college, especially with border work in Southern Arizona.”