Conversation with Dr. Susan Woolford, University of Michigan, C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital

Improving Provider-Patient Communication Through Novel Technology

NIMHD’s Conversations with Researchers Innovating to Promote Health Equity

February is African American 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 Susan Woolford, M.D., M.P.H., FAAP, principal investigator in minority health and health disparities research.

Dr. Susan Woolford

Dr. Woolford is an Associate Professor in the Susan B. Meister Child Health Evaluation and Research (CHEAR) Center in the Division of General Pediatrics at the University of Michigan, a Co-Director of the Healthy Flint Research Coordinating Center – UM Ann Arbor Core, and Associate Director of the Program on Equity in Adolescent and Child Health. In addition, Dr. Woolford serves as a Co-Investigator for the Michigan Community Engagement Alliance (CEAL), part of the NIH Community Engagement Alliance Against COVID-19.

Dr. Woolford’s clinical interests are childhood obesity prevention and treatment, particularly adolescents suffering from severe obesity. From 2006 to 2016, she led the development of the Pediatric Comprehensive Weight Management Center (PCWMC) at the University of Michigan, the first center in the state to offer intensive weight management for youth and their parents along with bariatric surgery for severely obese adolescents with significant comorbid conditions.

Dr. Woolford’s NIMHD-funded research focuses on the use of new technologies to enhance provider-patient communication. Using automated delivery of tailored messaging, her research aims to improve adherence to recommended lifestyle modifications among adolescents and their parents, particularly by prompting healthier food choices at the point of sale.

She serves on the Advisory Board for the American Academy of Pediatrics Institute for a Healthy Childhood Weight. Additionally, she is the Co-Director for the National Poll on Children’s Health and an oft invited speaker/commentator on issues impacting pediatrics generally and the critical issue of excess weight more specifically.

Dr. Woolford earned her medical degree at Michigan State University where she also completed her pediatric residency and Chief Residency. She completed a Pediatric Health Services Research Fellowship and Master of Public Health degree in health behavior and health education at the University of Michigan.

Q & A with Dr. Susan Woolford

What is your research goal, purpose and aim?
My goal is to improve the health of young people. Specifically, I’m interested in how physician-patient communication can enhance the health-related choices children and their parents make, with the aim of helping children achieve and maintain a healthy weight. During the pandemic, communication between health care providers and their communities became a critical issue, so I pivoted to address this broader form of communication as well.

I currently have three main foci of my work:

  1. To augment provider-patient communication about healthy lifestyle choices via the use of novel technology such as culturally tailored apps for helping adolescents achieve a healthy weight
  2. To communicate science to communities, particularly communities of color, in accessible ways so that they are well positioned to make the healthiest choices possible
  3. To explore and address the ways in which health systems treat children differently, with the goal of promoting health equity in pediatrics

How is your work advancing the science and health of populations experiencing health disparities? Are you seeing specific changes in particular communities or groups?
When I think about having an impact on populations experiencing health disparities, my community-engaged work during the pandemic comes to mind. I serve as a Co-Director of the Health Flint Research Coordinating Center (HFRCC), a collaboration started by the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and the Flint Community. In this role I help organize our annual HFRCC Community-Academic Research Symposium. In 2020, when the pandemic lockdown was announced, we had to rapidly pivot from this in-person symposium. Working with Debra Furr-Holden, Co-Director from Michigan State University at that time, and our Community Co-Director Ms. E. Yvonne Lewis, we started a COVID-19 Community Webinar.

This weekly webinar continued for 130 weeks. We partnered with community health and social workers to provide residents with information about the pandemic. We addressed scientific topics such as the basics of virus replication, testing, and vaccines. We found creative and tailored ways to help non-scientists understand the science needed to counteract misinformation prevalent on social media.

At the outset of the pandemic, there was a significant disparity in outcomes for residents of Flint compared to others in the county and the rest of the state. Initially, vaccine uptake lagged behind the state average. Over time, these disparities decreased markedly. The COVID-19 Community Webinar is thought to have contributed to this reversal in outcomes. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to play a role in this important community initiative.

From the research you are doing, what has surprised you about the discoveries from your lab and its impact?
From my research developing tailored apps to prompt behavior change, it was not surprising that changing weight related habits is complex. However, I did not expect the degree to which community would be essential in all aspects of this work. The behaviors I hope to shape do not occur in a vacuum. Community members are well positioned to help craft messaging most likely to positively impact participants. The insights from the community are crucial to the success of the projects I conduct, and I’m endlessly amazed by the spirit of generosity within the community to provide these insights.

What inspired you to become a researcher in minority health and health disparities?
I really can’t remember a time when I was not aware of the challenges facing communities of color. I was born and grew up in England. As a young child we lived in an area of North London called Tottenham where the population was majority Black.

My parents were always strong advocates for education and for addressing community needs. My father started one of the first schools in the country where almost 90% of the faculty and staff were Black, mirroring the demographics of the student body. My mother, when she retired, returned to their home country of Trinidad to start a nursing program, training hundreds of nurses and helping to address urgent healthcare needs. We also had family friends like Dr. David Williams whose research helped capture the extent of health disparities. His work allowed me to appreciate some facts about health disparities:

  • The equivalent of an airplane full of people die each day who could be saved if we were to address the inequities in our system.
  • Getting an education does not necessarily confer the protection that one might hope because greater disparities are seen in some cases at higher levels of education.

With this background and awareness, I knew I had to try to create change. If I could do that with young children, it could give them a chance to beat the odds and have the healthiest life possible. Initially, I imagined achieving this largely through my clinical work. However, there are many issues that cannot be addressed just in clinic. In some circumstances, we don’t know the best approaches to use, and a large proportion of patients don’t make it into a doctor’s office. That is when I decided to move into the world of research. I hoped I could contribute to treatment advances that reach a wider population, helping to eliminate disparities and inequities in pediatric health.

How do we encourage the next generation of scientists?
To encourage the next generation of scientists we must assure them that there is space for them at the table. We need to establish ways to support their careers with entry points that embrace difference and new ways of thinking.

Evidence suggests that diverse teams with a range of expertise and perspectives have the greatest impact on health. So, for example, if we think about COVID vaccines; in addition to basic scientists to create the vaccine, community engaged researchers, and epidemiologists, and communications specialists were all needed to ensure vaccines were used. There is an enormous need for innovative approaches that incorporate new and varied experience.

What do you envision as the future of minority health and health disparities research?
I envision a long road ahead. To coin a phrase, the arc of reform in health care is long but tends toward equity. The airplane full of people who die prematurely every day in the U.S. due to bias and inequities will gradually empty, thanks to advances made through the types of research supported by NIMHD. To advance the rights of all people (particularly children) to be well, however, we must reach beyond the halls of academia and partner with the community.

Page updated February 24, 2023