Health care providers, community partners and NAU faculty from around the state joined in Flagstaff and discussed Arizona’s significant health inequities and the need for a diverse health workforce. The Health Research Workforce Diversity Symposium was part of a larger university initiative to address health disparities by increasing the number of underrepresented professionals in health-related research fields.

Attendees heard that individuals with chronic and infectious diseases are often part of at-risk population groups. Increasing diversity among health researchers and health care providers can create an environment of trust, improve research and ultimately affect health outcomes.

“Evidence shows that having diversity among researchers greatly increases the impact and effectiveness of health-related research,” said co-organizer Julie Baldwin, a professor of health sciences. “It places more emphasis on community-driven methods to address social determinants of health, which has the greatest potential to lead to real change.”

The symposium was co-organized by Robert Trotter, associate vice president of health research initiatives at NAU. The university is moving toward a “hub of excellence” with plans to address the critical issue of limited diversity in science and the health workforce, said Trotter. “We plan to expand models of workforce diversity and take it to a national model.”

“NAU is well positioned to address the issues of health research workforce diversity, with our emphasis on Native American communities, rural workforces and our focus on first-generation college students,” said NAU President Rita Cheng.

Keynote speaker Violet Ryo-Hwa Woo, from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, discussed initiatives for increasing recruitment of diverse students for allied health professions, including research. Fellow speaker Albert Avila, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse Office of Diversity and Health Disparities, addressed funding opportunities for underrepresented scientists conducting substance abuse research.

By 2044, more than half of all Americans are expected to belong to a minority group, yet these demographics are not reflected among health researchers and medical professionals.

Addressing these disparities with the goal of improving health for all individuals, is the impetus for NAU’s new Center for Health Equity Research, led by Baldwin. The center will be focused on community partnerships, health research training programs and public health research initiatives.