Investing in a Sustained Partnership: A Data-Driven Human Approach to Social Justice and Equity

Guest post by Patricia Matthews-Juarez, PhD, Chair of the Environmental Health Information Partnership (EnHIP) and Rueben C. Warren, DDS, MPH, DrPH, MDIV, Scientific Advisor for EnHIP

In 1989, after many successful years of developing scientific and technical databases, the National Library of Medicine (NLM) started its first long-term outreach plan to train health professionals how to use NLM’s suite of digital tools. While these efforts helped large medical schools and hospital centers, institutions comprised of substantial minority populations struggled to maintain access to online databases and keep up with rapidly evolving technologies.

As a result, NLM sponsored a one-year pilot project to increase the capacity of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Hispanic-serving institutions, minority-serving institutions, and tribal colleges to access NLM’s toxicological and chemical databases. This program was designed not only to benefit the institutions, but also to investigate environmental toxins commonly found in minority and socio-economically disadvantaged communities, particularly in the southern United States. In 1991, the pilot project grew into a partnership called the Environmental Health Information Partnership (EnHIP).

EnHIP unites heads of the various universities and colleges with NLM leadership and staff. In addition to examining environmental hazards, this program also calculates the impact of hazardous waste on the lives of African Americans using data, technology, and scientific resources.

This single investment made more than 30 years ago to strengthen the capacity of HBCUs resulted in a tremendous payback in terms of education and research. As NLM and EnHIP have evolved, so have the demands for access to complex technology that capture and interpret data as a pathway to scientific explorations, interventions, research endeavors, and discoveries. The return on investment is the systemic organizational change at the member schools of EnHIP and listening channels at NLM. These opportunities create community-based projects in local communities and enhance the capacity of EnHIP member institutions to reduce health disparities in ways never imagined. These opportunities, driven by consistent investments from NLM, are linked to the practice and process of social justice and fairness, trustworthiness, and truth telling.

NLM continues to bring high standards and innovative ideas to the acquisition and management of biomedical data as scientists unravel the impact of the social determinants of health, health disparities, and health equity. The NIH UNITE initiative to end structural racism offers new opportunities to invest in equitable research and determine how data is collected, managed, and accessed with justice and equality in mind. Three decades of collaboration in data science, open access publications, and community/citizen science are paying off. Shared values and networks have been amplified at the international, national, regional, state, and local levels, and across populations. Years of consistently shared and common agendas have led to a strong and effective partnership with the current participating 23 HBCUs, Hispanic-serving institutions, minority-serving institutions, and tribal colleges. These dividends of trust, open communication, and transparency are reflected in the success of our nation in its efforts to reach for equity in science, education, and service.

Dr. Matthews-Juarez is the Senior Vice President for Strategic Initiatives and Innovation and Professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at Meharry Medical College. Her work focuses on the social determinants of health, health disparities, and equity in primary care education and community engagement in both the United States and Africa.

Dr. Warren is Director of the National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care and Professor at Tuskegee University. He previously served as Associate Director for Minority Health and Associate Director for Environment Justice at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Director of Infrastructure Development at the NIH National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities

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