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UAB uses mobile clinic to examine disease risk of rural Southerners

  • July 29, 2021
The RURAL Heart and Lung Study clinic will bring to rural communities technology that provides access to diagnostic tests that are not routinely done in rural settings. UAB researchers will examine medical, lifestyle and behavioral factors that contribute to higher health concerns in residents of Dallas and Wilcox counties.
Written by: Bob Shepard
Media contact: Hannah Echols

For photos of the clinic click here. For video of the mobile clinic, click here.

One in six Americans lives in a rural county. These communities play a vital role in the United States’ economy, but their residents tend to live less healthy and shorter lives. The University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health has started recruiting for a study that aims to answer the question ‘why are rural communities facing more health-related concerns?’ 

The Risk Underlying Rural Areas Longitudinal Study, or RURAL Study, will allow researchers to learn what causes the high burden of heart, lung, blood and sleep disorders in Southern rural communities. It will recruit 4,600 multi-ethnic participants from 10 rural counties in Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi. In Alabama, the study will recruit 1,100 participants from Dallas and Wilcox counties, which experience higher rates of heart and lung disease than other counties in the state. 

Mobile Exam Unit 9 InsideThe RURAL Heart and Lung Study clinic will bring to rural communities technology that provides access to diagnostic tests that are not routinely done in rural settings.
(Photography: Lexi Coon)
Historically, rural residents have not been included in research studies because they are not located near research hospitals and clinics. To help recruit research participants and bring medical care to rural areas, UAB will use a mobile clinic. The mobile clinic will travel to each study location to provide medical exams for the study participants and promote study engagement in diverse communities. Familial, lifestyle and behavioral factors, along with medical history including risk for heart, lung, blood and sleep disorders, will be recorded. Environmental and economic factors will also be studied. 

“The RURAL Heart and Lung Study clinic will bring technology to rural communities that provides access to diagnostic tests that are not routinely done in rural settings,” said Suzanne Judd, Ph.D., co-principal investigator of the study and a professor in the Department of Biostatistics at the UAB School of Public Health. “The project is an engineering challenge, a community engagement challenge and a disease prevention challenge, which makes the work incredibly exciting.”

Participants will be given a clinical exam that will take pictures of the heart and lungs and collect other measures of heart and lung function, such as inflammation in the blood, blood pressure and history of heart disease. If a health problem is identified during the exam, the participant will be notified immediately of the issue. If participants do not have a doctor, the researchers and study coordinators will work with local doctors who can help participants with their condition. If they do have a doctor, researchers will work with that person’s primary care doctor to provide test results and improve care. 

CT scanner(Photography: Lexi Coon)“UAB is a major stakeholder in the state of Alabama,” said Shauntice Allen, Ph.D., co-principal investigator of the study and an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the UAB School of Public Health. “Access to quality care, educational opportunities and employment are all things anyone would want their family to have. Access is a significant issue in rural communities. Bringing accessible health screenings to rural areas is important locally, regionally and nationally.”

The six-year, $21.4 million cohort study is funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, and includes 50 investigators from 15 other institutions. 

In addition to UAB, investigators from the University of Louisville, Louisiana State University’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center and University of Mississippi Medical Center will play a central role in participant recruitment, retention, follow-up, data return, return of results, community engagement and education. The study’s coordinating center is Boston University School of Medicine.

For more information, visit the RURAL Study website.