Dr. DeLawnia Comer-HaGans of Governors State University (GSU) holds a bachelor’s degree and two advanced degrees in economics and sociology. For 13 years, she has taught the principles of macro and micro economics at the college level. Still, when asked about her passions, Comer-HaGans talks about diabetes, disabilities, access to care, and disparities in treatment.
Here's how an economics scholar-turned-healthcare-advocate points out the common denominator between finance and chronic illness.
“If you look at what healthcare costs and what diabetes costs to treat—hundreds of billions per year—we can’t sustain it,’’ is the message Comer-HaGans shares with her graduate and undergraduate students as an associate professor of Health Administration in the highly esteemed GSU College of Health and Human Services. Comer-HaGans joined the GSU family six years ago. Before that, she taught economics at Dallas’ Richland College.
The daughter of an accountant, Comer-HaGans studied economics and earned a Master’s of Business Administration in Management Science and Statistics at the urging of her mother. Then the healthcare bug bit her a decade ago, and she became focused on diabetes, the metabolic syndrome that creates high glucose (blood sugar).
Today, the self-described health economist is enjoying the recognition her research has won from peers, academic journals, and charitable government foundations that fund her work. Recently, the prestigious Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-New Connections (RWJF) gave Comer-HaGans $98,000 to analyze the lifestyle and self-management trends among individuals with diabetes as well as those with disabilities—a group close to the heart of her husband, chief financial officer for a non-profit organization devoted to assisting the disabled.
She was awarded the prestigious Faculty Excellence Award at GSU on August 25, 2017.
Why are you so passionate about diabetes?
Growing up, a lot of racial minorities in our neighborhood were sick, and it seemed like the thing that everybody had was diabetes. So I was fascinated with it early on. Both sides of my family have diabetes. My mom has diabetes, and my best friend’s mother passed away from diabetes and had diabetes retinopathy, the subject of my dissertation in 2010, Disparities in Dilated Eye Exams among Adults with Diabetes. And, as I study diabetes, I see it’s tied to so many other illnesses like heart disease. You are twice as likely to die of a cardiovascular event if you have diabetes. And it doesn’t seem to be decreasing because of our behavior—eating processed foods with a lot of salt and chemicals. If you are eating all that and not exercising, it can be catastrophic. But people don’t see diabetes the same way as, say, lung cancer. They continue to partake in risky behavior.
How do you marry healthcare with macroeconomic principles for your economics students?
I don’t consider myself a true economist who studies quantitative statistics and analysis. I’m more of a social economist out to save the world. With my students, I teach them that economics is the study of behavior and scarcity. You have to make choices and every choice comes with an opportunity cost. I try to always incorporate diabetes or disabilities in my assignments. That’s how I bring my research into the classroom. So, when they are working on a fantastic health literacy project idea, I say to them, “How you are going to finance this? If you develop a program you have to be able to sustain it beyond the initial grant.”
What have you discovered about the role of behavior in influencing health outcomes?
I’m working on two projects that look at two different groups, but what’s interesting is the impact of people’s behavior on their disease outcomes.
The GUIDE Training and Research is a University of Illinois (Chicago)-Governors State collaboration funded by the National Institute of Health National Cancer Institute. I am an early stage investigator mentee on this project which looks at African-American women who have a history of breast cancer and why they do or don't go to genetic counseling. We found a lot of women don't want to know the truth, and in some cases, women are not participating in preventive screenings such as mammograms that might detect cancer in its early stages.
In 2015, the RWJF gave me a grant to look at individuals with diabetes and disabilities. I’m the principal investigator on this project, and I’m examining secondary data to see if individuals are keeping up with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ goals outlined in Healthy People 2020. For example, there is a goal that people with diabetes should see a dentist once a year.
In both projects, we see where the patient’s behavior—to seek genetic counseling and to meet the goals and objectives outlined by the DHHS—can have significant positive impacts on health outcomes.
Do you think Governors State is well-positioned for your healthcare and disabilities research? If so, why?
We serve a predominately racial minority base in the South Suburbs of Chicago. This is the area where we see a high incidence of diabetes and other chronic illness, as well as a lack of economic resources. Ultimately, I want to partner with groups and agencies that serve individuals with disabilities and chronic illness. Individuals with disabilities really are an underserved population. It takes incredible resources, and with the health care system not being as great as we'd like, someone has to help and I feel like it’s my calling.