Dr. Alicia Best earns the COPH’s first ever K01 for cancer research

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“Cancer has always been at the forefront of my mind,” said USF College of Public Health’s Dr. Alicia Best.

She lost her mother to breast cancer when she was just fifteen. Now, she’s taking a step toward fighting back with her National Cancer Institute Mentored Research Scientist Development Award to Promote Diversity (K01), a first for the COPH.

Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the K01 will run through March 2023 for a total of five years.

The aim of the award is to improve routine asymptotic breast, cervical and colorectal cancer (CRC) screening within federally qualified health centers (FQHCs).

“FQHCs are located in medically underserved areas and serving folks who don’t have insurance, who may be low income, along with high minority, transient, migrant, and immigrant populations,” said Best, an assistant professor in community and family health. “These health centers tend to serve vulnerable populations and the cancer screening rates among them tend to be lower than the national average.”

Alicia Best, PhD, MPH. (Photo by Anna Mayor)

Partnering with the FQHC Premier Community Healthcare Group, Inc. in Dade City, Fla., she will conduct formative research to gain understanding of how patients perceive and make decisions around routine cancer screening and also aid in the design and pre-testing of an eHealth tool to be used within the health center, motivating patients to have a discussion with their providers on the topic of cancer screening.

“I’m starting from ground zero and working with the USF College of Engineering’s Dr. Srinivas Katkoori to develop the prototype from scratch,” she said. “What it ends up looking like will be determined by formative research and driven by what we learn from the patients. I’m also working with Dr. Jason Beckstead [COPH associate professor of epidemiology and biostatics] to analyze decision criteria prompting individuals to get screened, which will be incorporated into the eHealth tool.”

Best said during year one she plans to focus on her career development, gaining the necessary skill sets to help her accomplish the research and plans to spend time at Premier to understand the “ins and outs of the center.” Research, she says, will begin in year two.

“FQHCs can be invaluable partners in improving routine cancer screening among the medically underserved due to their sliding-fee pay structure and strategic location in medically underserved areas,” Best said.

FQHCs are intended to be used for primary and preventative care and keeping individuals healthy before they have to go to the ER, but Best said cancer screening is not at the forefront of issues being discussed.

“Patients tend to use the health center for acute conditions or chronic conditions, such as filling diabetes medication, they aren’t typically thinking about cancer screening,” she said. “So the uniqueness of the eHealth tool is to meet folks where they are and trying to see if we can convert them to routine screeners.”

She said the end goal of this five year grant will be to pilot the eHealth tool at Premier and develop a prototype of the tool to be implemented more broadly through a larger R01-level health communication intervention study.

“Findings might inform not only breast, cervical and CRC screening, but also other future health promotion and screening interventions in FQHCs, which are increasingly becoming medical homes for uninsured and low socioeconomic populations,” she said.

Best said she’s appreciative to COPH Dean Donna Petersen and Dr. William Sappenfield, Professor and Director of the Chiles Center, for their support of this grant, which will now cover 80 percent of her time. She’s also grateful to Dr. Ellen Daley, COPH professor and associate dean for Research and Practice, who will serve as her primary mentor for the K01.

“Honestly, this is the highlight of my career. When I applied for the job at USF, this is what I talked about in my interview. I have always wanted to apply for a K01 award through NCI, I even attended a workshop at Moffitt Cancer Center to train for it and prepare the best application I could, sometimes staying on campus until 10 p.m. working on it,” she said “I had fabulous mentors and supporters. I do feel like this grant is what I needed to set me up for my future as a cancer disparities researcher, for sure. I feel it will give me the last bit of training that I need to further my career, give me the protected time to publish and lay the foundation for my research and to help set me up to write an ROI. I’m beyond ecstatic!”

Story by Anna Mayor, USF College of Public Health