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A new model of community research tackles obesity in Worcester County


A new federally funded research center at UMass Medical School is tackling the issue of obesity in Worcester County, using a community-research model that relies equally on the participation of the community and its partner institutions. While the older model of community research generally originated with a researcher’s idea for solving a public health problem, this new model relies on communities to partner with academic institutions to develop sustainable, effective interventions to combat the real health issues they see in the members of their communities.

Last year, under principal investigator Stephenie Lemon, PhD, associate professor of medicine in the Division of Preventive and Behavioral Medicine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) funded the Worcester County Prevention Research Center (WC -PRC), one of 37 such centers in the country that work with local communities to address community health problems. The Worcester County center will address the growing problem of obesity and its associated adverse health conditions among residents of Central Massachusetts, using the research model known as community-based participatory research (see sidebar).

What is “community-based participatory research”?

As defined by the CDC, community-based participatory research (CBPR) “is an orientation to research that alters the relationship between the researchers and the research participants. In traditional research, academicians define the research issues, determine how research is done, and decide how outcomes are used. University-based departments and professional schools are generally the arbiters of who has the appropriate knowledge to define research and who is qualified to perform it. In contrast, CBPR is predicated on mutual ownership of the research process and products as well as shared decision making.”

“The WC-PRC is partnering with several community agencies to conduct applied research in real world settings,” said Dr. Lemon, who is also co-director of the community engagement and research component of the UMass Center for Clinical and Translational Science. Through collaborations with other public partners, the WC-PRC will build knowledge to develop effective public health programs and policies that promote healthy weight, healthy behaviors and optimal management of related chronic health conditions. These public partners include the city and state departments of public health, Common Pathways (a healthy communities coalition), Central Massachusetts Area Health Education Center (AHEC), as well as the Edward M. Kennedy (EMK) Community Health Center (formerly known as Great Brook Valley) and UMass Memorial Health Care. Representatives of these organizations comprise a steering committee, which guides the center’s work. The long-term goal is to improve the health and well-being of individuals, families and communities in Worcester County through sustained community partnerships.

Categorized as a developmental site by the CDC, in its initial five years of funding the WC-PRC will develop the infrastructure necessary to strengthen the capacity for the Central Massachusetts community to engage in scientific research related to obesity; train researchers to conduct community-based participatory research; train community workforces to effectively implement proven health promotions; develop and implement interventions that use the new model of community research; and engage in other related activities.

The center’s current core project is a pilot study with EMK Community Health Center and Central Massachusetts AHEC to test a novel method for reaching out to low-income patients with diabetes who do not seek routine care. Treatment guidelines for type 2 diabetes require that patients see their providers on a regular basis, especially if their diabetes is not well controlled. Unfortunately, only about 50 percent of the target population seek routine care. If effective, results from this study will provide valuable information to funders to support routine implementation of this type of program. 

In addition to this core project, UMMS WC-PRC scientists are funded to conduct a range of studies that address the WC-PRC mission. These include a study to identify policies that affect resident’s engagement in physical activity, and the determinants of those policies; a trial to evaluate the effectiveness of an intervention at preventing weight gain in the school worksite setting; a test of the feasibility and effectiveness of a group-based weight loss program among clients in the Worcester WIC program; trial to test the feasibility and efficacy of a school nurse-delivered weight management program for adolescents in high schools; and a project to train community mental health workers to deliver lifestyle counseling to severely mentally ill people.

For additional information about WC-PRC projects and partnerships, visit

WC-PRC Steering Committee


Carol Bova, PhD, associate professor of nursing Judith K. Ockene, PhD, the Barbara Helen Smith Chair in Preventive and Behavioral Medicine and professor of medicine
Derek Brindisi, MPA, director of the Division of Public Health for the City of Worcester Cathy O’Connor, MA, director of the Office of Healthy Communities for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health
Joanne Calista, LICSW, executive director of Central Massachusetts AHEC Sherry Pagoto, PhD, assistant professor of medicine and co-director of the WC-PRC Training Program
Suzanne Cashman, ScD, professor of family medicine & community health and director of community health Lori Pbert, PhD, professor of medicine, director of the Center for Tobacco Treatment Research and Training and co-director of the WC-PRC Training Program
Lee Hargraves, PhD, associate professor of family medicine & community health Milagros C. Rosal, PhD, associate professor of medicine and co-director of the WC-PRC
Stephenie C. Lemon, PhD, associate professor of medicine and director and principal investigator of the WC-PRC Clara Savage, EdD, director of Common Pathways
Monica Escobar Lowell, vice president of Community Relations for UMass Memorial Health Care Susan Sullivan-Bolyai, DNSc, associate professor of nursing
Antonia G. McGuire, president and CEO of the Edward M. Kennedy Community Health Center