Health equity is a matter of health quality for E.K. Graham award winner

"Everyone deserves a chance to be healthy in this country and in this state. And that’s why I do the work that I do,” said Dr. Giselle Corbie-Smith, director of the UNC Center for Health Equity Research.

Dr. Giselle Corbie-Smith received the 2019 Edward Kidder Graham Faculty Service Award at the University Day ceremony. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

“What are you going to do about it?”

That’s the question that led Dr. Giselle Corbie-Smith to a two-decade career of ensuring that the latest health research benefits people in communities that often get overlooked. Her work at the UNC Center for Health Equity Research, which she founded in 2013, is just one of the reasons she received the 2019 Edward Kidder Graham Faculty Service Award at the University Day ceremony.

As director of the center, Corbie-Smith brings health research to communities around the state, partnering with communities to improve the health of minority populations and underserved areas.

“Everyone deserves a chance to be healthy in this country and in this state. And that’s why I do the work that I do,” she said. “I fundamentally believe that we need to give folks that opportunity and the circumstances where they can make decisions that are in line with their values. And most people want to be healthy.”

She is also a Kenan Distinguished Professor in the School of Medicine’s social medicine and medicine departments and NC TraCS associate director for engagement science.  She has been the principal investigator of several community-based participatory research projects to improve the health of rural racial and ethnic minorities. She formerly directed the Program on Health Disparities at the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research and NC TraCS’ Community Academic Resources for Engaged Scholarship Services.

Corbie-Smith’s work “represents what is best about community-engaged scholarship and service at UNC,” wrote one of her nominators. “It epitomizes President Edward Kidder Graham’s call to make the campus coextensive with the boundaries of the state.”

“I share this award with my colleagues and my community partners,” Corbie-Smith said. “I’m not sure if I were at another institution that I would have had the same opportunities and the same kind of support.”

Translating research to treatment

When she first came to Carolina 20 years ago, Corbie-Smith worked mostly on defining the problem of health inequalities. But her mentor pushed her to do more by asking her that question, “What are you going to do about it?”

“The reason I was able to do this work is because this environment really fosters taking action about issues of concern for the people of the state. I resonated with the mission of this institution and found mentors and colleagues who were really interested,” Corbie-Smith said.

Those collaborations eventually led to the establishment of the Center for Health Equity Research. The center takes a three-pronged approach, looking at the causes of health disparities, ways to eliminate them and getting treatment to the communities where it is needed.

“The Center for Health Equity Research is really there to support and create a community of scholars who think about collaboration,” Corbie-Smith said. “We recognize the expertise of community members as an integral part to coming up with the best solutions to address the complex problem that health inequalities are.”

The first stop of the eastern route of the recent Tar Heel Bus Tour was Rocky Mount, a city that straddles Nash and Edgecombe Counties, where the Heels on the Bus heard about collaborations in the community like the center’s Heart Matters. This project used research on how lifestyle changes could reduce blood pressure to develop an 18-month program focused on changing the diet and exercise habits of African Americans who were at risk for cardiovascular disease.

Corbie-Smith, who has partnered with community and faith-based organizations in the Nash-Edgecombe area for 15 years, said she was impressed throughout the trip to see how other faculty are forming “partnerships with communities that are tackling really thorny issues in our state and thriving.”

A life in health care

Corbie-Smith has been interested in health care since she grew up watching her mother, a nurse and then a nurse administrator, go to her job daily at City Hospital in New York. “I was good at math and good at science, and she encouraged me to consider it,” she said.

She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree at Cornell University, a master’s degree in clinical research at Emory University and a medical degree at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

The doctor, in addition to her work at Carolina, also maintains a small practice at the Carrboro Community Health Center. “Every time I’m in clinic, I feel so lucky to be able to share such an intimate part of people’s lives and to offer some small amount of relief for their suffering,” she said.

At Carolina, she feels her greatest contribution has been her ability to form partnerships “to really advance the role of relationships and multiple ways to approach inequalities,” she said.

That contribution will continue through Clinical Scholars, the center’s change leadership program, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, that is now in its fourth year at Carolina. “It’s an integrated approach to leadership development so that the career professionals and experienced professionals can address some of the thorniest problems facing us in this country,” she said.