Gift of health

Choua Vang graduates Sunday, Dec. 17 and will speak during the Graduate Studies Hooding Ceremony. She has been in school throughout most of her children’s lives, starting out earning a medical assistant certificate at Western Technical College before attending UWL. The family is accustomed to sitting around the kitchen table doing homework together, she says.

Master’s grad collects new data on the health of Wisconsin’s Hmong population

UWL graduate student Choua Amee Vang compares running a data analysis to opening a present. One never knows what they might find or what the implications will be. It’s an exciting thought as Vang brings together new health-related data on the Hmong population in Wisconsin to share with public health leaders across the state.

The data for her capstone project in the Master’s of Public Health program is on alcohol and substance use and mortality among Wisconsin’s Hmong population. It is the first collection of such data for Hmong Americans in Wisconsin and could serve as a model to continue collecting this data and expand to other ethnic groups. Currently, Hmong health data is combined under the category of “Asian,” and isn’t as insightful for Hmong-related epidemiological analyses, says UWL Professor Gary Gilmore, Vang’s graduate and capstone advisor.

Once complete, Vang will prepare a statewide report and present her results before the Wisconsin Public Health Council in February. Having more specific data available will ultimately help the effectiveness of community health interventions to serve these Wisconsinites.

Wisconsin’s largest ethnic population

Gilmore, a member and former chair of the Wisconsin Public Health Council, originally had discussions about the need to tap into more Hmong-related health data with the council, including one of its members, Thai Vue, executive director of the Wisconsin United Coalition of Mutual Assistance Associations. The Hmong population in Wisconsin is about 50,000 — comprising the largest ethnic population in the state. And Wisconsin has the third-largest Hmong population in the country, behind California and Minnesota.

“It is really important when we talk about prevention and population health, to have this largest ethnic group in Wisconsin represented in the data collected,” says Gilmore.

Gilmore recommended Vang for the project as she is Hmong, is highly regarded for her work at Gundersen Health System, and has proven to be a responsible and detail-oriented student. “It was clear that she would bring a responsible approach,” he says.

Her project entailed collecting data from a variety of sources including the Wisconsin Division of Public Health, local public health departments and the Department of Transportation. Some of the data collected thus far has verified the need for the project. For example, data from the DOT regarding Operating While Intoxicated (OWI) citations show that Hmong OWI convictions were almost twice as high as the average person in Wisconsin. Data also show outcomes from those citations including accidents, injuries and mortality.

She also conducted interviews with members of the Hmong community regarding alcohol use and substance abuse. Vang says it is too early to share results of her study, yet some results point to the need for more alcohol education among Hmong youth.

Her undergraduate start

Gilmore, who taught an undergraduate course in epidemiology, initially got Vang hooked on a future tied to improving community health.

Vang says it was UWL Professor Enilda Delgado who gave her the initial encouragement and support to pursue research in her future during an undergraduate research methods course in society.

“Within the first few weeks of having Choua in my Social Research I, I knew she had amazing research potential,” says Delgado.

In Delgado’s Senior Quantitative Capstone course, Vang was able to apply her research skills by using national health data to explore the disparities between Hispanic and white women in cervical cancer. Vang found, holding a variety of characteristics constant — including smoking behavior, physical activity, employment status and alcohol consumption — Hispanic women still demonstrated a significantly higher likelihood of cervical cancer relative to white women.

After earning her undergraduate degree in sociology, Vang applied her research experience becoming a full-time breast cancer researcher with Gundersen Health System. She worked with surgeons to better understand outcomes such as the successfulness of lumpectomies and the impact of breast cancer blogs.

After six years at Gundersen, Vang returned to earn her Master’s of Public Health with the goal of working more directly with communities to improve public health.

A role model

During graduate school, Vang transitioned into a career as a quality-improvement specialist at Gundersen and maintained full-time work.

While being a mother, full-time employee and student is a busy life, it is also motivating, explains Vang. She wants to be a role model for her children and for her siblings as the oldest of eight. She is the first in her family to earn an undergraduate degree and now a master’s as well.

“I want to advance myself, so I can help my family,” she says. “An education can take you far.”

After she walks the stage Sunday, Dec. 17, she hopes education will take her further in the direction of improving the health of Wisconsinites.

Gilmore says that is likely. He hopes that Vang’s report will provide a model to continue the collection of Hmong-related health data in Wisconsin and beyond, and also influence the importance of the collection of data for other ethnic groups such as the Hispanic population.

Gilmore calls Vang an “outstanding” graduate student who brings not only a meticulous effort to data collection, but also an important perspective.

“It has been a delight to work with her because she thinks about the bigger picture each time we communicate,” he says.

Gilmore says a continual dialogue between Vang, Vue and himself on the project has led to a stronger effort and more meaningful output for public health professionals across the state. The public is lucky to have someone of Vang’s caliber working on expanding the health of our community, says Delgado.