NCI Distinguished Scholar Urges Tackling Disparities Directly

January 27, 2022 by Alec Stone MA, MPA, ONS Public Affairs Director

America must make a drastic change in its approach to addressing health disparities for it to ensure adequate healthcare delivery, according to the National Cancer Institute’s Continuing Umbrella of Research Experiences Distinguished Scholars October 2021 speaker Robert Winn, MD.

“We need to reimagine and challenge ourselves about what the next 50 years is going to be like,” Winn said. “I will no longer accept [the excuse] that it’s hard to address health disparities issues. Those days should be in the rearview mirror.”

Winn is director and Lipman chair in oncology at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Massey Cancer Center, senior associate dean for cancer innovation, and professor of pulmonary disease and critical care medicine at VCU School of Medicine in Richmond, VA. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), he started his career as a cell biologist studying how a dysregulated cell disrupts other cells to cause cancer. Today, Winn looks into how social determinants of health affect people on an individual level within their community.

Winn gave an example of two sisters who developed breast cancer as adults, where one sister moved to an “affluent neighborhood, the other to an impoverished area.” Would their treatments be the same? Should they be the same? What does their access to fresh food and quality medical care look like?

“You zip code, your neighborhood of association—this is your ‘ZNA’—certainly intersects with and impacts your DNA,” Winn said. “And it’s that level of science I’m most intrigued by for the 21st century.”

Winn also brought up a lack of trust in the latest medical treatments in communities of color, as well as the need for investment into transportation so individuals can get to the doctor.

“As we’re now entering into an era of precision medicine and immunotherapy, let’s be more deliberate in our delivery and more equitable with the distribution of this wonderful science to our communities,” Winn said. “We really all need a little grace and humility as scientists. Science must take a pause. It must listen, it must learn, and it must change.”


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