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Increasing Diversity in Cancer Clinical Trials


Public health students worked to increase diversity in cancer clinical trials by presenting educational materials to the Utah Pacific Islander Coalition.

In Dr. Len Novilla’s Hlth 495 class, Integrating Public Health and Primary Care, students lead projects where they put into practice the skills they have developed in the public health program and use these skills to make a difference in the community.

For Steven Nonu, Kirsten Novilla, Danielle Smith, and Richard Pierce, participating in this project was a meaningful opportunity to gain experience in the public health field and work with the community on an issue the students are passionate about.

For their project, which focused on increasing diversity in cancer trials, the students partnered with the Huntsman Cancer Institute.

When the project began, Nonu was working at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. Nonu’s supervisor encouraged Nonu and his group to focus on diversity in clinical trials because of a low representation of minority groups in clinical trials nationwide.

The goal of the project was to work to increase diversity for each and any of the four types of clinical trials (screening trials, clinical trials, diagnosis trials, and end of life trials) through educational outreach to groups in the community.

Originally, the students planned to reach out to older adults at senior centers because many cancers come later in life, but presenting educational materials at senior centers became increasingly complicated with the pandemic and required a lengthy approval process.

The students worked quickly and found another group to present their educational materials to, The Utah Pacific Islander Health Coalition (UPIHC), as well as several Hispanic groups. The students met with the UPIHC over video calls and administered a survey before and after they presented educational materials from the National Cancer Institute and Huntsman Cancer Institute about what clinical trials are and how to participate in them.

The results of the surveys demonstrated the efficacy of the educational materials. Novilla said, “We found that there were gaps in understanding of what clinical trials are and other misunderstandings.” Using the educational materials, the students were able to clarify misunderstandings and teach the group about the importance of clinical trials.

Members of the UPIHC were happy to work with the students and expressed interest in hosting them at future meetings and collaborating on other projects.

Through the project, the students found meaning in working with local public health and primary care groups. Smith explained, “The biggest takeaway I had was the importance of working together in public health. We needed all of the groups to work together. We were really excited that we were able to make an impact.”

The project provided insight into how the public health world functions. Nonu said, “This project helped me see public health in action and bring everything we learned in class into practice.”

The focus of the project was important for the students personally and professionally. Novilla said, “For me personally it was a very meaningful project because I come from a diverse background and I also come from a family that has cancer running in the family.” Novilla also described how this project would impact her future, and said, “I’m hoping to go to medical school. That’s why I thought this project was so great because I will end up serving all types of people and that cultural competence is so important.”

Through the project, the students learned about cultural competence by learning about how certain groups are at a higher risk for some cancers and about the importance of education. Learning about the history of these groups and how their history influenced them influenced the way the students delivered their message.

With this hands-on preparation, the students are ready for work and for medical school and ready to make a change for the better in their communities.