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NMSU's new Fulton Chair to direct center for improving health in border region

As the newly named Stan Fulton Endowed Chair in Health Disparities Research, Jill McDonald is utilizing her extensive background in maternal and child health research to develop a center dedicated to studying health disparities across southern New Mexico and the border region. The center is based in New Mexico State University's College of Health and Social Services.

Woman sits at desk and studies notes.
Jill McDonald, the Stan Fulton Endowed Chair in Health Disparities Research, reviews her notes for the Southwest Institute for Health Disparities Research. As director, McDonald leads the research-based facility, which will study health disparities in southern New Mexico and the border counties. (NMSU photo by Tiffany Acosta)

As the director of the Southwest Institute for Health Disparities Research, McDonald is preparing the research-based facility to respond to the health disparity challenges found in southern New Mexico and the border counties.

McDonald joined NMSU in the fall of 2013 after spending 18 years with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Division of Reproductive Health, including four years in El Paso at the U.S.-Mexico Border Health Commission.

"Currently, we are in the information gathering mode," McDonald said. "We're trying to define our areas of research strength, both within the college and outside the college. We're also trying to learn more about efforts currently underway in the community to improve health, so that we can identify possible gaps in those efforts and try to fill them."

The projects she hopes to install will promote service learning and research opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students in the college. The institute is located on the second floor of the College of Health and Social Services annex, which was built in 2010.

"I would love to see junior investigators, graduate students and even undergraduates get more involved in research," McDonald said. "We can be training researchers in health disparities research in this region, and at the same time developing our own areas of expertise in health disparities research.

"We have very good connections with the promotora community, with the providers community, and I think we have good research strength and experience to pair with those connections," she said. "I know there is great interest in child obesity, domestic violence, maternal and child health, chronic disease and other areas, where I think we have a chance to make a difference.

"We would like to be a major health disparities center in the region," McDonald said. "One of our first challenges will be to decide where we will focus our initial efforts."

Through partnerships with health and social service agencies and providers, SWIHDR can create culturally suitable interventions to deal with the important health inequities and disparities.

"To begin, we plan to identify several pilot projects," she said. "An example of a pilot project could be working with promotoras and providers in the community to better understand how health decisions are made. So we might find ways to better inform and empower women, who are making decisions about their own health and their family's health and make them better communicators with their physicians. Better communication could be one way to reduce adverse birth outcomes we see in the region, like preterm birth, low-birth weight and caesarean birth, or address chronic health problems related to behavior and lifestyle, like diabetes and obesity."

McDonald said the institute also is considering ways to increase the availability of and use of local health data to assess and monitor indicators of health at the community level. Training students and health decision-makers to use data could also be a role of SWIHDR.

"We don't understand the health of the population residing in border counties and municipios as well as we understand the population in the State of New Mexico as a whole or in any of the border states as a whole," she said. "We need population-based health information at the local level in order to develop programs and policies that will serve our population specifically.

"We should also know more about our trans-border population," she said. "Perhaps this could be a focus of the SWIHDR."

For example, according to McDonald, research could be conducted to learn more about women who live on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border and their health needs.

"We have U.S. and Mexican women living on the Mexico side, who cross the border to deliver, and then we lose track of them," she said. "We don't know a lot about them. We don't know their numbers. Where do they have access to services? We don't know about their preconception care. We don't know if they are getting adequate prenatal care or postnatal care."

McDonald has spent her first several months at NMSU meeting with faculty across the college in the School of Social Work, Department of Public Health Sciences and School of Nursing. She said she hopes to form a steering committee to formulate the strategic plan soon for the institute.

"I think the SWIHDR can become a key contributor to community health in the region," McDonald said. "There is clearly a need, and we are in a good position to address it."

The Stan Fulton Endowed Chair in Health Disparities Research was established in 2004 with a $1 million donation. Currently, this is the lone chair in the College of Health and Social Services, and McDonald is the first chair in the history of the program.