Conversation with Dexter Cooper, M.P.H., KDH Research & Communication

Empowering Community Health Workers to Improve Health Equity for Black Communities

NIMHD’s Conversations with Researchers Innovating to Promote Health Equity

February is Black History Month. As we celebrate the significant contributions to America—from its history through present day—by people who represent Black and African American communities, we recognize researchers who are promoting health equity through their work funded through NIMHD’s SBIR/STTR program.

Meet Dexter Cooper, M.P.H., principal investigator in minority health and health disparities research.

Dexter Cooper, M.P.H.

Dexter L. Cooper is a Program Manager at KDH Research & Communication (KDHRC) in Atlanta, Georgia. His research focuses on health disparities, health equity, chronic and rare diseases, and men’s health in a community-based participatory research framework. His 20-plus years of professional experience includes projects created to promote healthy behaviors, such as physical activity and disease screenings, and projects that address the lack of minority participation in clinical trials at the individual, provider, and system level. Mr. Cooper’s research experience focuses predominantly on reducing chronic disease health disparities and promoting health equity among the African American/Black population.

Mr. Cooper serves as the principal investigator for two NIMHD-funded Phase I Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) projects. Intervention to Help Orient Men to Excel (IN-HOME) is a culturally appropriate, online professional development course to prepare community health workers (CHWs) to conduct outreach to reduce caregiver burden for African American and Latino caregivers. Guardians Receiving Information through Navigators (GRIN) is an online professional development course that aims to prepare CHWs to provide oral health outreach to low-income Black guardians of children and adolescents. The aim for both projects is to increase CHWs’ knowledge, attitudes and beliefs, perceived self-efficacy, and intentions to conduct outreach in their communities.

Mr. Cooper has worked in leading and well-known public health organizations and institutions such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Cancer Society, and Morehouse School of Medicine. He has presented scientific research at various scientific conferences and has first authored and co-authored several publications published in peer-reviewed journals.

Mr. Cooper earned his Master’s degree in Public Health from Morehouse School of Medicine with a specialization in social and behavioral sciences and his Bachelor of Science degree from Morehouse College.

Q & A with Dexter Cooper

What is your research goal, purpose and aim?
My research goal is to reduce health disparities related to chronic diseases for disproportionately affected minority populations. My aim is to produce effective, culturally relevant, reproducible, and usable research and programs for the purpose of increasing health equity. Most of my current work includes developing, implementing, and evaluating training programs for medical providers and for community health workers (CHWs).

How is your work advancing the science and health of populations experiencing health disparities? Are you seeing specific changes in particular communities or groups?
My current work includes developing and providing training for medical providers and CHWs to increase their knowledge about chronic diseases and tools to engage minority patients and clients. Through lay health workers, minority communities have other resources for health information in addition to their medical providers. Conjointly, our work engages subject matter experts to gather input from medical providers, health disparities researchers, and lay health workers in the development process to provide lay health workers with relevant and practical health information. This has a secondary impact by increasing subject matter experts’ awareness of CHWs and their important role in addressing health disparities.

Initial data suggest that the pilot training program for NIMHD-funded Phase I Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Guardians Receiving Information through Navigators (GRIN) program increases CHWs’ knowledge, attitudes, self-efficacy, and intentions to conduct oral health and tooth decay prevention outreach among African American/Black guardians of children and adolescents. Additionally, qualitative feedback indicates that CHWs find the materials helpful, useful, and applicable to them and their communities.

From the research you are doing, what has surprised you about the discoveries from your lab and its impact? Please provide a couple of examples.
The way the landscape of CHW involvement in communities and connection to medical systems evolves and changes continues to surprise and invigorate me and our team at KDH Research & Communication (KDHRC). Over the past five years, we’ve worked on models that use in-person, hybrid, and online learning to engage CHWs and provide training. CHWs demonstrate again and again their commitment to their communities and a willingness to adapt to changing circumstances. For example, when the COVID-19 pandemic started, we had to adapt multiple in-person trainings to be hosted virtually. As the implications of COVID-19 (directly via long COVID and indirectly via disruption of prevention services) become more apparent, we see CHWs seeking out training and materials to support their communities.

What inspired you to become a researcher in minority health and health disparities?
I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. By the time I was a teenager, I noticed a change in the built environment in my community as more African American families moved into the area. The change in the type of businesses that moved to my community and the lessening of access to medical care became apparent. In addition, several family members developed chronic illnesses; some died from complications. At the time, I did not understand the relationship between the built environment and health, so I was compelled to find answers to help people in my community remain healthy and maintain as high a quality of life as possible. Later, I learned about different factors that contribute to health disparities for different groups. I chose to address health disparities and health inequity by promoting healthy behaviors and education to raise the knowledge in minority communities about the connection between lifestyle and health.

How do we encourage the next generation of scientists?
I think, at a minimum, the next generation of scientists need to understand the current landscape of health disparities and health equity, as well as health disparities projected to develop in the near future. Together with this information, scientists and educators need to encourage the next generation of scientists to think outside of the box. Fresh ideas are needed to handle challenges that we currently face, and ultimately alter potential health disparities and health equity challenges for future populations.

We should also motivate the next generation of scientists to develop relationships and collaborations with other scientists who have similar interests. Additionally, we must emphasize the importance of building relations with community-based organizations, community leaders, and community members, in order to reach disparate populations earlier about the importance of their health choices and empower them to advocate for their health.

What do you envision as the future of minority health and health disparities research?
I envision a greater need for minority health and health disparities research in the future, which will include more behavioral-based and health policy-based research that interfaces with biomedical research, treatments, and interventions. With rising costs of health care and the increase of health disparities across diseases in several areas and communities, it is imperative to promote health equity and the adoption of healthy behaviors. I also foresee more medical organizations and institutions partnering with more non-medical health professionals to reach and support disparate groups and help navigate around social determinants of health.

Page updated May 1, 2023