Closing a deadly digital divide

Seeking to close a growing digital divide that has emerged in cancer knowledge

and prevention, the National Cancer Institute is launching a pilot project

to make more data available to low-income Americans via the Internet.

To develop the Pilot Projects to Overcome the Digital Divide, the cancer

institute is offering up to eight contracts worth a total of $1.5 million

for the best ways to tap into the communities that need the information

the most. The deadline for submitting proposals is July 24, and the project

is expected to serve as a model for larger initiatives in the future.

"The project is designed in response to the Institute of Medicine report

that identified a large underserved population [that] had higher morbidity

and mortality rates," said Gary Kreps, head of the Health Communication

and Informatics Research Branch at NCI.

While Americans in higher income brackets have access to many sources

of information about cancer and its prevention, lower- income Americans

often do not have access to basic information about cancer detection tests

and cutting-edge technologies that can detect and cure cancer early. Even

the idea of regular checkups for such ailments as breast, colon and prostate

cancer are not well-known among many low-income citizens, according to several

studies.

"The gap between people who have access to the latest information tools

and those who do not is widening, and the digital divide is growing along

educational, economic and ethnic lines," the White House said recently.

The Institute of Medicine study found that the population groups having

the highest cancer rates were not on the receiving end of new information

sources generated by the Digital Age.

And despite the recent decline in cancer illnesses and deaths, some

groups of Americans have higher cancer rates. A study by the American Cancer

Society last year found that poor Americans, regardless of their race, have

a 10 percent to 15 percent decreased rate of survival from cancer than the

general population.

"Smoking has become increasingly concentrated among socioeconomically

disadvantaged Americans," said John Stevens, a vice president of the American

Cancer Society. "Among adults with less than a high school education, smoking

decreased by only 14 percent, compared to 58 percent among adults with at

least a college degree."

Kreps said NCI is looking for ideas that are interactive and make use

of culturally diverse resources already available in communities, such as

World Wide Web sites, radio talk shows and public service announcements.

"It also might be the development of new and culturally sensitive Internet-based

information and other projects that will enable cancer information services

to reach the underserved population using new media channels," Kreps said.

Possible solutions include partnerships with organizations to distribute

computer terminals and free Internet access to low-income communities. NCI

also envisions collaborating with housing authorities, community centers

and churches to increase online access.

"While information and knowledge are not guarantees of good health care

decisions, there is ample evidence that they contribute to them," according

to NCI. "Currently, substantial barriers prevent major segments of the population

from seeking and using online cancer information."

Although using the Internet to spread the word is a relatively new idea

in medicine, scientists hope it will have the same impact as public service

announcements on television and pamphlets distributed at public places.

Such campaigns have successfully targeted childhood immunization rates,

drunk driving and the hazards of smoking. None used the Internet as their

primary medium.

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