An assistant professor at Saint Louis University's College for Public Health and Social Justice has received a $100,000, two-year grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) to determine which behaviors and policies are most likely to improve the health of African-American men.
Keon Gilbert, DrPH, is among a select group of researchers in the early stage of their careers to receive a New Connections: Increasing Diversity of RWJF Programming career development award.
New Connections is a national RWJF program that engages young researchers and experts from historically under-represented groups, such as members of a racial or ethnic minority or the first in their families to attend college.
Gilbert will study the many factors that influence African-American men in their decisions about seeking preventive health care and engaging in healthy behaviors. His research will address racial, ethnic and gender health disparities and identify effective community-based intervention strategies.
Gilbert, who has master's degrees in public affairs and African-American studies as well as a doctorate in behavioral community health sciences, said he discovered his passion for African-American men's health during his Kellogg Health Scholars post-doctoral training at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
"It opened my eyes to the unique and complex issues that African-American men face," he said. "It fit with my interest in disease prevention and health promotion and gave me a specific group of people of focus on."
Typically, healthy men don't go to the doctor as frequently as women partly because they don't have the structure of appointments that include a regular mammogram and pap smear to remind them it's time to get an annual physical.
"There also is this piece of masculinity embedded into the understanding of why men behave differently than women. Masculinity is formed and shaped differently in black communities than white communities," Gilbert said.
African-American men are more likely to avoid doctors than Caucasians, Gilbert said.
"It's an issue of priorities for men. Health competes with other priorities such as taking care of their families or work. They don't make the time to take care of their health," Gilbert said.
"African-American men also may feel distrustful of doctors and the health care system. If they have a negative experience in the clinical setting, they may choose to completely disengage. They are more likely to shut down and not return rather than to find a new doctor."
As a group, African-American men face additional challenges, Gilbert added. They tend to have less education and fewer social supports than Caucasians. They are more likely to live in poverty with fewer resources.
"African-American men see themselves as being a little behind. If we didn't have so many problems in our community, we wouldn't experience all these health problems later in life," Gilbert said.
Because passage of the Affordable Care Act gives all U.S. residents easier access to health care, Gilbert believes now is an opportune time to engage African-American men in the health care system and connect them with community resources to motivate them to commit to staying healthy.
He said he will build on the research of others in understanding the unique profile of African-American and examine which behaviors, such as diet, exercise and stress relief, are most important to communicate to keep them healthy.
As he conducts his research, Gilbert will network with mentors, recipients of New Connections grants and other researchers funded by RWJF engaged in parallel work and studying topics in adjacent areas.