In August, the Translational Research Institute (TRI) at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) joined a national collaborative effort which will help the TRI assess and better understand to the health needs of individuals living in Central Arkansas, as well as their interest in taking part in research.

The TRI is one of seven institutions nationally taking part in the collaboration, known as the Sentinel Network for Community-Based Participatory Research. The goal is to determine attitudes in the community about research, any past experiences with research studies, and what would motivate community members to participate in a research study. In an effort to collect this information, the TRI is using the Sentinel Network Survey.

The Sentinel Network Survey has been utilized by six other universities around the country. These institutions collaborated to establish a sustainable network that encourages ongoing, real-time assessments of top health and community needs, concerns and research participation.

The project is being implemented under the TRI’s Community Engagement Component, which is directed by Kate Stewart, M.D., M.P.H., who also leads the Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health’s Office of Community-Based Participatory Research. The goal is to collect at least 1,000 surveys by the end of the fall semester. Students at the College of Public Health were invited to administer the survey at sites in Little Rock.

Before being deployed to their sites, the student volunteers participated in a four-hour training preparing them for their role. The training included the history and context of the community in which they would be serving, interviewing basics and cultural awareness. As part of their training, students also complete UAMS’ HIPAA training, as well as the human subjects protection training that is required of researchers and research staff at UAMS and other academic institutions.

In September, 14 student volunteers began administering the survey. Each week, they go in pairs to predetermined sites in the community, where they use the one-page survey to collect data from community members; it takes less than five minutes to complete. No personal information is being collected from anyone completing the survey, so their responses are anonymous.

MPH student Sharice Loftin says the experience has built her confidence and skills, especially “how to approach people to get them to fill out the data, because how you approach them really plays a role in whether they are going to do it or not.”

More than that, the connection with people out in the community has made public health and what she is learning in the classroom much more meaningful.

“I really, really love this program, because a lot of time you see what the need is in the community, but when you actually get that dialogue between community members and learn the history of the community itself, I feel like that approach to learning is very beneficial and really hits home more versus just reading it in black and white,” Loftin said.

Data collection is taking place in and around the 12th Street Corridor in Little Rock. Among the sites participating in the program are Harmony Health Clinic, Shepherd’s Hope Neighborhood Health Center, the UAMS 12th Street Health and Wellness Center, and the Hillary Rodham Clinton Children’s Library & Learning Center. In addition to weekly volunteer opportunities, students will administer surveys at local community fairs and events.

The plan for future semesters is to involve student volunteers from the other colleges at UAMS and to have the activity qualify as a project of the Inter-professional Education Program.

For more information about the Sentinel Network, contact Program Coordinator Nicki Spencer at 501-526-6629 or via email at ndspencder@uams.edu.

This story was adapted from a version that first appeared in COPH News, a publication of the UAMS Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health.