MPH student organizes Tarrant County forum on Hispanic women’s cervical cancer prevention

HSC School of Public Health MPH candidate, Dr. Hemali Patel
Dr. Hemali Patel

Texas women are more likely than their peers in more than 40 states to develop cervical cancer and die from the disease. For Hispanic women in Tarrant County and those living along the Texas southern border region, the rates are almost double.

Cervical cancer is preventable. To shed light on this important public health concern and engage community conversation around the topic, public health MPH candidate Hemali Patel, MD, at The University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth (HSC) recently organized a Cancer Care Services community roundtable on cancer care disparities in Tarrant County. Cancer Care Services supports patients and caregivers and empowers survivors to reduce the impact of cancer in Tarrant County.

The event, addressing cervical cancer disparities in communities of color, was organized as part of Dr. Patel’s graduate practicum work through the HSC School of Public Health’s MPH Online program in Public Health Leadership. Dr. Patel is a hospitalist and assistant professor of internal medicine at Dell Medical School, UT-Austin.

SPH Assistant Professor Erika Thompson, PhD, was a panelist at the event, joining other local educational and community agency representatives, as well as a survivor of the disease. Dr. Thompson’s primary research is focused on the connection between HPV and cervical cancer, with emphasis on prevention through HPV vaccination.

Until recent years, cervical cancer was the leading cause of cancer deaths in American women, but great strides have been made to boost survival rates. The CDC has found that 91 percent of all cervical cancer cases can be traced to HPV infection, and that nine out of 10 of these cases could be prevented with timely HPV vaccination.

CDC’s efforts to eradicate this cancer mirror the initiatives of the World Health Organization, which set a goal in 2020 to eliminate cervical cancer worldwide.

“No woman today should have to die from cervical cancer,” said Dr. Thompson. “We have a spectrum of prevention methods, including HPV vaccination, cervical cancer screening — such as pap and HPV tests — and treatment.”

Panelists shared American Cancer Society data emphasizing the health inequities that Hispanic women face in certain counties in Texas, where they are more likely to be diagnosed with cervical cancer and die from it. Among the top barriers to Hispanic women’s cancer care and prevention cited by the panel were language and communication issues; citizenship and immigration status and the related fear of seeking care; public policy; lack of financial resources or ability to access the U.S. health care system; perceptions of the system; limited community resources or lack of awareness of them; and the tendency for women, as family caregivers, to prioritize the health of others first.

Panelists pointed to positive tools for increasing women’s health protections in Tarrant County, including the public health infrastructure, community/academic and health provider partnerships and services offered through community health workers (CHWs) as points of contact.

“This was a unique opportunity to cultivate relationships from different sectors of work and bring subject matter experts together to inform the community about the inequities,” said Dr. Patel. “It also gave us an opportunity to think about how we can galvanize around this work moving forward and find strategies for change.

“The Cancer Care Services team that pioneered this work will continue to expand CHW training programs for preventative screening, and will work through other avenues, including developing strategic plans to share with community stakeholders,” she added.

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