Students’ research tackles inequities in chronic pain care

By Karene Booker

Jessie Boas


Meghan McDarby


Two Cornell undergraduates have been pursuing their respective passions for working with older adults and solving problems in underserved communities by tackling the burden of chronic pain among minorities.

Over the past year, Meghan McDarby ’14 and Jessie Boas ‘13 delved into the research on how persistent pain affects different racial, ethnic and age groups under the guidance of sociologist Elaine Wethington, professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology and co-director of Cornell’s Translational Research Institute on Pain in Later Life (TRIPLL).

Their conclusion - minorities are at greater risk and are less likely to receive adequate care, and the problem may grow as America’s population ages and becomes increasingly diverse. The causes of the inequities are not simple, they found, ranging from factors like individual differences in pain sensitivity and beliefs about medical care, to provider factors like less effective pain assessment and communication with patients, to systemic factors like differing access to health care.

 “I think I have learned more about being a successful physician from this research than I have from any pre-med prerequisite,” said McDarby, a human development major and aspiring geriatrician. McDarby discovered her passion for older adults in high school through a chance volunteer experience at her local hospital and has pursued this passion through her coursework and activities at Cornell.

“This project sparked my interest in policy and public health issues,” she said. “I’ve realized that the sociological aspects of the practice of medicine are just as important as the biological and psychological principles.”

The students prepared their findings for a Pain Disparities Consensus Workshop, convened in December by TRIPLL, which brought researchers and practitioners together to develop strategies to address inequities in pain care in New York City.

“Our paper served as a springboard for collaborative and interactive discussion on pain disparities and related issues,” said Boas, a sociology major in the College of Arts and Sciences who hopes to join the Peace Corps when she graduates. “I want to have the skill set to effectively research the problems that plague communities, and be able to initiate programs to ameliorate them.” “Meghan and I were fortunate enough to attend this conference and to discuss pain disparities with top experts in the field.”

Now the students are writing an article with Wethington and TRIPLL Director Dr. Cary Reid at Weill Cornell Medical College highlighting their findings as well as the recommendations generated by the conference.

After spending months on the literature review, the highlight of the project came when she met Dr. Carmen Green from the University of Michigan, upon whose work the literature review was based. “Meeting strong, dedicated women like Dr. Green and Professor Wethington has given me the courage to move forward full-force into the healthcare field,” said McDarby.

 “Meghan and Jessie are outstanding examples of how involvement in research is one of the major advantages of a Cornell undergraduate education and a “win-win” for faculty and students,” Wethington said.  “They have brought incredible energy and intelligence to this project and their involvement has helped them apply what they have learned in the classroom to real world issues. Dr. Reid and I have benefited from their commitment and dedication and they have laid the groundwork for their future careers.”

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.