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By: Jessica Rhinehart

MHERC News CEAL 4 Press ReleaseBIRMINGHAM, AL – The UAB Minority Health & Health Equity Research Center (MHERC) has been awarded a $5.6 million 4-year grant by the National Institutes of Health to implement the fourth iteration of the Alabama Community Engagement Alliance (CEAL) – Alabama CEAL for Healthy Communities.

Originally focused on COVID-19 prevention, this evolution of Alabama CEAL maintains its foundation in community engaged research but shifts focus to address chronic disease by mitigating social determinants of health (SDH) barriers in communities that face health disparities. To do this, the MHERC is taking a new approach that is helping to redefine and strengthen community engagement in research.

Lead Principal Investigator, Mona Fouad, M.D., MPH, will be working alongside Multiple Principal Investigators (MPI) Robert Kimberly, M.D.; Lori Bateman, Ph.D., R.D.; and—in a newly formed leadership role—Community MPI, Michael Wesley, Sr., DMin, Senior Pastor of Greater Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church and Executive Director of the Cornerstone Revitalization Foundation.

“Having a Community MPI for Alabama CEAL is critical to ensure true community partnership in developing interventions that improve community health,” said Fouad. “CEAL is about more than addressing the community. It’s about having a seat at the table to lead, make decisions, and shape the outcomes of this program. We are excited to have Dr. Wesley on the team.”

Alabama CEAL will be working with partners in communities across the state to develop comprehensive and sustainable “Prescriptions for Community Health.” This new concept adapts Food and Exercise are Medicine (FIM and EIM) interventions for use at the community level. The “Prescriptions,” customized for each community, will include programming and interventions to address the unique social determinants of health conditions in each area, improve access to local resources, and offer community-level assistance through a cohort of Community Health Coaches.

The study will help determine whether this approach can improve healthy behaviors in the community, and ultimately help reduce the prevalence of chronic diseases. The project will also develop an implementation toolkit that can be used by other communities to plan, carry out, and evaluate their own programs to improve community health. Community partnership in the development of this kind of intervention is key, says MPI Lori Bateman.

“What’s unique about this project is that while we have our overarching goal, we haven’t finalized the intervention yet,” stated Bateman. “We understand that for programs to have the greatest impact, they have to be designed and co-led by the people they affect. Having a Community MPI and developing the intervention through working groups allows us to truly integrate the community from the very beginning, and ensures these initiatives reflect their experience, expertise, and expectations.”

Community MPI Michael Wesley agreed that this kind of community-academic collaboration is vital. “Because health disparities are so prevalent, it’s important to bring services closer together and Alabama CEAL is how we can collaborate to close the gap,” stated Wesley. “For faith-based leaders, this is a frontline experience because we work closely with people and hear first-hand their issues. That’s why it’s especially important that we work with the medical community to address the needs of our community.”

Both Alabama CEAL and the MHERC have been working toward greater community-academic collaboration for some time. Last year, in partnership with the MHERC, Alabama CEAL held its inaugural Community Research Institute to help prepare community members to serve as partners with UAB researchers. With newly awarded funds, Alabama CEAL will refine and expand the CRI and continue building community capacity to fill roles such as Dr. Wesley’s.

Another way Alabama CEAL is community focused, is in its budget. A significant portion of the awarded funds are earmarked for community partner organizations—to support their time, effort, and expenses in the project. These partners include the YMCA of Greater Birmingham, I am BHAM, Black Belt Community Foundation (Selma and Camden areas), YMCA of Selma-Dallas County, and Mt. Ararat Missionary Baptist Church (Birmingham), among others.

Serving as Alabama CEAL’s statewide planning and implementation partner, Live HealthSmart Alabama—an initiative of the University of Alabama at Birmingham—seeks to reduce the high levels of chronic disease in Alabama. To do this, the program is making good health simple in the areas of nutrition, physical activity, prevention and wellness, and education by addressing policies, systems, and the built environment.

Using its established network of over 100 partners, Live HealthSmart Alabama takes a multi-sectoral approach—linking community stakeholders, local and state government, businesses, healthcare providers, and faith-based organizations—to create customized improvement plans.

With this partnership, Alabama CEAL will use Live HealthSmart Alabama’s Mobile Market and Mobile Wellness infrastructure, to improve access to healthy foods and prevention and wellness resources in its intervention areas.

The first Alabama CEAL for Community Health interventions should begin in fall of 2024.

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