Michigan Meetings to focus on cancer disparities, consumption

Inequities in cancer care and the current economy, and understanding how and why we consume everything from money to food to natural resources are the topics that will lead off a new series called the Michigan Meetings, presented by the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies.

The Michigan Meetings, described by Rackham Dean Janet Weiss as "a series of annual interdisciplinary meetings of national and international scope on topics of broad interest and contemporary importance to both the public and the academic community" will launch in 2010. Up to two projects a year will receive up to $50,000 each, and the events will take place in May of the next year.

The meetings are intended to bring together academic disciplines around an important issue or theme, says Toni Antonucci, who recently left her position as associate dean for academic programs and interdisciplinary initiatives at Rackham to become the associate vice president for research. Ideally the meetings will involve experts from the public and private sectors.

Antonucci says she was extremely pleased with the response to the call for proposals, and couldn't have imagined any better first projects to demonstrate the power of having experts from different areas come together around a problem or opportunity.

"These meetings are the epitome of what Rackham is — an interdisciplinary graduate institution. We are pioneers in interdisciplinary work," Antonucci says.

"The problems we face today no longer have simple solutions. I remain incredibly optimistic that we can teach ourselves to face the challenges of modern society by working on them from multiple perspectives."

The Michigan Meeting 2010: "The Economics of Cancer Health Disparities" is led by Dr. Christopher Sonnenday, assistant professor of surgery and assistant professor of health management and policy. Other organizers are from the Comprehensive Cancer Center, Institute for Social Research, Medical School, School of Public Health, Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, the Ann Arbor Veterans Administration and the Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research.

Considerable research has been conducted at U-M on disparities in access to health care and disease outcomes, based on race, ethnicity, gender, geography and socioeconomic (SES) status. This meeting focuses on how these disparities, and the additional stress of the current economic crisis, impact care for those with cancer, the second leading cause of death in the United States.

"A concern is that as people become more stressed financially, they are more likely to give up things that may have preventive health impact, such as cancer screening, good nutrition, control of weight and exercise," Sonnenday says. "Furthermore, the more stressed and financially strapped that people are, the less likely they are to seek care for new problems. Shortages of time and money may cause patients to avoid seeking care for new symptoms, leading to cancers presenting at later stages when they are more difficult to treat successfully."

Certain segments of the population are more vulnerable to economic stressors, particularly minorities, the poor and those without health insurance or with inadequate insurance, he says.

Sonnenday says the Michigan Meeting will allow for an expanded collaboration with the community regarding disparities in cancer care. He describes the meeting as a multidisciplinary event, with various U-M participants in addition to representatives from the state government, local churches and community organizations, as well as collaborators from Wayne State University and the Henry Ford Medical Center.

The Michigan Meeting will provide a great format to highlight work under way at the university and in the state, Sonnenday says.

"Michigan is a laboratory for the whole country in terms of the economic crisis," he says. "We felt the impact earlier and more substantially than other parts of the country. This is an opportunity to be on the front end of efforts to change things about the health care system that may magnify disparities in care, particularly for cancer."

Stephanie Preston, an assistant professor of psychology, is leading the Michigan Meeting on "The Interdisciplinary Science of Consumption." She and her colleagues believe this conference will be the first meeting between people who study the environmental aspects of consumption, scientists who study the biological evolution of how animals store and consume resources, and researchers who study how humans acquire and consume food, alcohol, money and material goods.

Preston plans to bring together experts in marketing, finance, neuroscience, psychology, psychiatry, ecology and natural resources over their common interest of consumption in the hopes of creating a shared understanding that can inform novel public policy programs. "I am interested in this interdisciplinary field that does not really exist," Preston says. "Michigan is the perfect place to host this meeting and brand this emerging field."

Preston argues that psychologists, economists and animal researchers have much to teach each other.

"For example, there is already indirect evidence that these disparate types of decisions are related. The same neural systems are implicated in research on gambling, drug addiction and animal food hoarding, yet we do not have a good model human hoarding such as saving money in the bank, food in the pantry, or myriad items in the attic or garage," she says.

A goal is to learn something about the basic, evolved mechanisms of these decisions that can be used to explain widespread modern problems such as addictions, over acquisition, and excessive credit card spending.

"Right now, research on addiction to substances like alcohol and drugs is only distantly related to environmental consumption; it's currently just an idea."

Preston says one important outcome of this Michigan Meeting would be the development of early education programs that better explain what happens to items when people get rid of them.

The meeting also will engage the community through a public lecture and book signing and an event directed on compulsive hoarding. A cross-listed course and a Web site to centralize consumption resources also will be created. Both Michigan Meetings include a graduate seminar component.

The two Michigan Meetings were selected in March. The request for proposals indicated each meeting "should be of interest to significant segments of the U-M and regional communities as well as participants from around the nation and the world. They should be a catalyst to begin, continue, or culminate ongoing discussions."

Rackham will issue a request for proposals for the 2011 Michigan Meetings in November 2010.