Bridging the Healthcare Gaps for Underserved Asians and Asian-Americans

Back to Fall 2020: Volume 109, Number 3

By Keiva Hummel

As an Asian-American researcher and nurse, Dr. Tsu-Yin Wu often witnessed fellow Asian-Americans in her Eastern Michigan community who did not have access to information or health care. Her life’s work of serving this community and Asian-Americans and Asians throughout the world were what led to a nomination for an award from the National Civic League.

The Health Equity Award is presented each year by the National Civic League in conjunction with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The award recognizes individuals who are leveraging civic engagement to improve health outcomes for those most impacted by health disparities.

A respected researcher, professor, and community advocate, Dr. Wu is director of the Eastern Michigan University Center for Health Disparities Innovation and Studies (CHDIS), where she leads a team of faculty and staff who are creating interdisciplinary interventions to bridge gaps in health care to prevent cancers, chronic diseases, mental health, and lead poisoning prevention. The team uses policy, systems, and environmental approaches to implement effective culturally tailored programs that promote health and well-being. These interventions have increased knowledge among underserved individuals on important health issues related to chronic diseases and cancer screening, particularly amongst Asian communities.

Dr. Wu has first-hand knowledge of the health challenges and disparities encountered by Asians and Asian-Americans. During her 20-year career, she has observed complex barriers to good health, including cultural, language, systematic barriers to accessing healthcare and preventive services, and several scenarios where Asian-Americans are the victims of “broken” health systems.

There has been a paucity of research on health outcomes among Asian-Americans and even more scarcity investigating vulnerable groups such as refugee Asian-Americans. Early on in her work, Dr. Wu went to meet with top officials at the state public health department to share what underserved Asian communities were experiencing and advocate for funding support. During the meeting, she was told that there were more urgent priorities that needed state funding and there existed no evidence or data to back up her claims.

Since then, she has worked tirelessly to provide such evidence and data, and she has an outstanding record of publications in peer-reviewed journals using empirical scientific data to tell the stories of underserved Asian and Asian-American communities. The statistics and findings in her research have revealed health disparities that are pervasive in those communities.

Dr. Wu is working to change the way the traditional health system delivers care to vulnerable populations who have limited access, health literacy, language, and cultural barriers. She has dedicated her career to improving the health of Asian-Americans and Asians through multifactorial approaches shaped by community input.

Dr. Wu has strengthened community clinical linkages with community engagement and expanded bilingual navigator services to link health systems and the public health department. Since the beginning of the Affordable Care Act, her team of bilingual navigators has assisted several thousand Asian-Americans in obtaining quality healthcare and health services including cancer screening and preventive health programs. For many of these individuals, this was the first time they became insured and were able to get treatment for kidney dialysis and medications to treat their diabetes, hypertension and other chronic diseases.

She has worked to share the stories of Asian-Americans’ experience with the current healthcare system; including a South Asian woman in her 40s diagnosed with stage III breast cancer who could well have had a better prognosis had she been given annual mammography screenings and been diagnosed at an earlier stage. Many underserved Asian-Americans do not have regular health screenings.

Another example is a Hmong woman who got her first blood sugar reading at a health fair that Dr. Wu’s program organized. The result was three times higher than what is considered healthy. This woman had never been tested for diabetes but was aware of such a condition. Dr. Wu immediately knew the risk and prompted the patient to be checked, diagnosed, and treated.

One of her studies examined the effects of refugee status on cancer screenings among Asian-Americans. The unique study findings showed that even after controlling for other factors, Asian-American refugees still were less likely to participate in cancer screenings compared to non-refugee Asian-Americans.

A recent publication authored by Dr. Wu illustrates the ongoing challenges facing Asian-American communities with respect to the enactment of the Affordable Care Act. Unlike what has been found for other ethnic groups, her study results showed that, while healthcare coverage increased for Asian-Americans, health outcomes did not change significantly from earlier years (before passage of the Affordable Care Act), nor did the use of preventative care.

As a community advocate, Dr. Wu has built the evidence base and educated stakeholders (public health authorities, legislators, health care professionals) about health disparities to build a culture of health. Her study findings have provided much needed support for the unique challenges that Asian American populations face and her team implements best practices for culturally sensitive health care programs that promote Asian-Americans’ health and well-being. Dr. Wu ensures their voices are heard and understood by health authorities, legislators, and scientific societies.

Dr. Wu has not only transformed health care among Asian-Americans in the United States, she has successfully replicated and expanded her research into global communities including China, Philippines, and Taiwan. The breast cancer program increased breast health awareness and resulted in early detection of breast cancer in underserved areas of China and Taiwan.

As a direct result of this international program, more than 120,000 women received breast cancer screenings. For many women, this was the first time in their life that they received breast cancer screening. Internationally, researchers have tested her interventions in their own countries, laying the foundation for changing cancer mortality worldwide. As a result of her expertise, Dr. Wu improves health outcomes among Asian-Americans in the U.S. and throughout the world.

Dr. Wu was presented with the RWJF-NCL Health Equity Award during the 2020 All-America City Awards. She will be receiving a $3,000 cash prize and will be recognized in a ceremony at a later date by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Keiva Hummel is Program Director for Civic Engagement at the National Civic League.  

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