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Researcher Hopes A Long-Term Survey Helps Improve Health Of Wisconsinites

Susan Bence

For more than a decade a group of Wisconsin researchers based at UW-Madison have been gathering data through a program called SHOW (Survey of the Health of Wisconsin).

Kristen Malecki has been involved in the program since its inception, starting as a researcher just before it was about to launch in the field.

"Many other investigators and faculty in the Department of Population Health Sciences, including the department chair were responsible for the initial vision and planning for the program," Malecki says.

She was recently named director and lead investigator. Malecki is also is an assistant professor in the Department of Population Health Sciences at UW-Madison.

She says SHOW is the only statewide survey of its kind. So far, more than 6,000 residents around the state have participated.

"One of the things we've learned is to train and hire field interviewers who are from the communities that we are working in. We hired residents from Polk County, we hire people from Green Bay ... I think people are willing to talk people who are like them, they are residents, they’re neighbors," Malecki says. "And everyone wants to be healthy."

Malecki says SHOW folds in more than 3,000 variables that contribute to what she calls "the social determinants of health." The process begins with an interview in a participant's home, which takes one-and-a half-hour.

"What makes SHOW unique is that we ask a lot of questions about health, but then we also collect urine and blood and serum and plasma, and we’ve collected microbiome samples. So, we can start to understand how these social factors and other factors outside interaction with health care influence our health and wellness," Malecki says.

She says the goal of the program is to figure out how the environment gets under a person's skin, “So we can start to see as technology evolves different biological markers of response. So, we don’t have to wait for the disease to happen … we can start to look who's more vulnerable and susceptible to outcomes using that data."

Malecki says more and more researchers from UW-Madison, Medical College of Wisconsin and UW–Milwaukee and researchers in other parts of the country are tapping into SHOW’s network of Wisconsin residents to add to environmental health research, resulting in over 47 scientific papers. 

"[Researchers are asking] questions about physical activity and rural health, about private wells. We have a paper coming up that's from a study lead by a professor of obstetrics and gynecology studying urinary incontinence. It’s a huge problem and people don’t even know about it," Malecki says.

Malecki says the program aims to recruit more Milwaukee residents to widen the scope of the survey. If you're interested in participating, you can find information here.

"Over the next couple of years we’ll be focusing largely on Milwaukee and people of color who live in the city of Milwaukee. But we also understand that there are health disparities across the entire state of Wisconsin, so rural communities are another area of focus for us," Malecki says.

"Over the next couple of years we'll be focusing largely on Milwaukee and people of color who live in the city of Milwaukee. ... rural communities are another area of focus for us."

The scientist is particularly interested in diving into Milwaukee’s environmental and health disparities. While growing up in Shorewood, Malecki made some early observations.

“I had friends with kids from all over the city ... so I spent a lot of time all over the city of Milwaukee and ... it was very clear to me that there were huge stark disparities in the neighborhoods and communities in which we lived and it didn’t make much sense to me,” Malecki says.

She made up her mind to try to help solve some of those complex problems.

“I don’t know that I’ve done it, because it’s hard to do, but I think we need to look at long-term impacts of these disparities ... and what does it mean for us as a society,” Malecki says.

She hopes SHOW can help influence research to identify solutions.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.