Temple Magazine

Reaching Out with Care

For nearly a decade, Temple’s Center for Asian Health has provided access to health education and preventive care to Asian immigrant communities.

Story by Renee Cree

When arriving in a new country, most immigrants are not thinking about their health and well-being. Faced with the task of finding housing and a job and learning a new language, health care tends to rate low on their list of priorities. Even without the pressures immigrants face, attempting to navigate an unfamiliar healthcare system can be confusing.

Such issues are particularly significant to Southeast Asians in the U.S., among whom cancer is the leading cause of death. For example, cervical cancer rates are highest among Vietnamese and Korean women. Southeast Asian women also are more likely to have larger tumors than other racial groups.

Korean men have the highest incidence of stomach cancer; Vietnamese men have 18 percent higher rates of lung cancer than do white men. Furthermore, rates of liver cancer are approximately 11 times higher among Southeast Asians than among other populations.

Statistics such as these led Grace X. Ma, professor of public health at the College of Health Professions and Social Work, to open the Center for Asian Health (CAH) at Temple. Since the center opened in 2000 with financial support from the National Cancer Institute, Ma and her staff have worked to provide health education and access to preventive healthcare measures for the underserved Southeast Asian population on the East Coast.

When she joined Temple in 1996, she hoped to open CAH and then build a regional network that would reduce health disparities in Asian Americans and other ethnic minority populations. Ma began by focusing on communities in Philadelphia. Now, CAH’s outreach has extended to New York City and Washington, D.C.

“One of the things we try to do is stress the need for prevention and early detection, which could help close the gap on some of the health issues that affect the Asian population more than the population at large,” Ma says. “Many Asian immigrants are either uninsured or underinsured and have no access to basic health services such as cancer screenings or vaccinations. As a result, they are diagnosed with health problems much later.”

Researchers at CAH have conducted numerous studies on cervical, breast, prostate, stomach, colorectal and liver cancers. Recent work has focused on improving cancer screening rates and exploring cultural attitudes about screening, prevention and treatment. “Many Asians aren’t brought up with the perceptions of regular health maintenance that other groups have,” Ma explains. “We want to build awareness and create a culture where health-seeking behavior is the norm.”

To encourage such behavior, Ma established the ATECAR Asian Community Cancer Network in 2000. (ATECAR stands for Asian Tobacco Education, Cancer Awareness and Research.) It was one of the first programs in the nation dedicated to addressing health disparities among underserved Asian Americans through a community-based research approach. In order to target the population effectively, researchers work side-by-side with community leaders to develop programs that are sensitive to the particular needs of the Asian American community.

CAH approaches tobacco cessation, its other area of interest, in the same way. China is one of the largest producers and consumers of tobacco, and as a result, Research Project Manager Yin Tan says many Asians grow up in a “culture of tobacco,” where smoking is widely accepted and its health risks are not fully explored.

Tan and others have worked to change attitudes about tobacco by focusing on prevention and reduction in smoking rates among adults and adolescents, and by developing culturally relevant prevention and intervention strategies that can be exercised within the community.

community member at health fair

The Center for Asian Health offers the Asian-American community a host of programs that deal with health issues including osteoporosis, diabetes, hepatitis B and hypertension. Photo courtesy Kelly & Massa.

Grace Mah

Grace X. Ma, director of Temple’s Center for Asian Health, is world-renowned for her health education programs aimed at Southeast Asian immigrants. Photo courtesy Ryan Brandenberg.

CAH employs educational campaigns in media outlets that serve the Asian immigrant community and utilizes bilingual pamphlets and even a number of plays—developed and directed by researchers and performed in the community—that highlight the dangers of secondhand smoke.

While CAH focuses heavily on cancer education and prevention, community members can go to CAH for help with other health-related problems. CAH also offers community programs that deal with osteoporosis, diabetes, hepatitis B and hypertension.

Linh Ngo, a Vietnamese immigrant, and her family emigrated to the U.S. three years ago and do not have health insurance. Through a local Vietnamese organization, they found out about the center’s hepatitis B screening program. Once screened, Ngo’s whole family discovered they were infected with the virus. They have since gotten free medical treatment with help from CAH.

“With our health and disease taken care of, I am attending the Community College of Philadelphia and can now focus on my studying to fulfill my dream,” Ngo says. “I plan to transfer to Temple next year to get a bachelor’s degree in health information management.”

Success like this can be attributed to the systematic approaches Ma and her team employ. When CAH began, for example, researchers met with leaders from the Southeast Asian community to better understand and address the most prevalent issues of the population.

Today, the organization partners with more than 150 community groups and has helped conduct more than 500 cancer education activities and workshops. It expanded to New York in 2003, providing cancer education and assistance with cancer screenings and smoking cessation to Asians in New York City. CAH began working in Washington, D.C., in 2004.

It collaborated with the Asian American Health Initiative in Montgomery County, Md., to conduct cancer health disparity research and education intervention. In 2006, CAH worked with Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., to start a physician-based trial to increase colorectal cancer screening in Chinese populations. It has reached out to nearly 90,000 Asian Americans from New York to the nation’s capital over the past 10 years.

Diana Wu, president of the American Ethnic Small Business Council Inc., has partnered with CAH to educate her organization’s members about illnesses such as hepatitis B, breast and cervical cancer, diabetes and smoking cessation.

“Through these programs, some people have successfully quit smoking, quite a few have detected hepatitis B and others found out they were at an early stage of breast or cervical cancer,” Wu says. “The impact and contribution of the work, to Chinese communities and the whole society, is enormous.”

In addition, the organization has partnered with nearly 50 healthcare providers to screen nearly 4,000 Asian Americans for cancer, providing everything from equipment and manpower for registration and paperwork to transportation and interpreters, all to ensure that hard-to-reach communities have access to preventive health measures.

And while it has received more than $14 million in government funding, CAH also has provided 25 grants to several local community agencies to build training programs about smoking prevention and to train their own workers to address these health issues. This training, Ma says, is another cornerstone of the center.

“It’s not only important that we contribute to improving the health of the Asian-American community today,” she says. “We also need to train the next generation of scientists to build on these improvements.”

Thus far, in collaboration with the College of Public Health at Sichuan University in China, they have trained more than 90 junior researchers. Public health students interested in minority health are eager to study with Ma, and for good reason: Her work in Asian health disparities is world-renowned. She has authored nearly 70 peer-reviewed publications and her research has won 12 prestigious awards. Her body of work aside, the director credits her research team and the support of Temple administrators for helping their work flourish. Looking ahead, Ma plans to continue to explore ways to improve Asian American health both by building on her existing research and by expanding it to include emerging health issues such as diabetes and cervical cancer.

“We’ve made important contributions not only to the scientific community, but to the lay community, as well. Our research translates into real-life benefits,” Ma says. “I’m very proud of that."

Renee Cree is a staff writer for Temple’s Health Sciences Center.

Back to Winter 2010