Mason Researchers Link Knowledge Gap, Rising Cancer Rates among Koreans

By Michele McDonald


Kyeung Mi Oh

Simply getting the word out to Korean Americans about cancer screenings may be the most influential way to save lives, George Mason University researchers say.

Lack of knowledge beats lack of health insurance or fatalistic beliefs when it comes to Korean Americans’ not making an appointment for a cancer screening, says Kyeung Mi Oh, a professor at George Mason’s School of Nursing in the College of Health and Human Services.

“Until they have symptoms, they really aren’t concerned,” says Oh, whose recent research has appeared in the American Journal of Health Behavior and the Journal of Health Communication. “They don’t think screening is necessary.”

Cancer is the leading cause of death for Korean Americans and is on the rise, made worse by low screening rates to catch it in the early stages, Oh says. For example, colon cancer rates for Korean Americans jumped by 43 percent for men and 24 percent for women in 1997 to 2002 when compared with 1988 to 1992. Despite these increases, only half of those Oh surveyed knew about colonoscopies, which can catch the cancer before it becomes widespread, while 80 percent of the overall national population knows about colonoscopies.

Gary Kreps

Gary Kreps

It’s a personal issue for Oh; her father died from cancer in 2008. “We should educate immigrants about the benefit of screening early for cancer and the problem of not doing it,” she says. “They should be aware of why it is important to have screenings and regular checkups.”

Oh teamed with Mason professor Gary Kreps, chair of Mason’s Department of Communication and director of the Center for Health and Risk Communication, to conduct a series of studies that focus on Korean Americans.

“There are significant health disparities that affect minority populations,” Kreps says. “We know that minorities have poor health outcomes, but we are not sure why or what to do about it.”

Korean Americans are understudied and frequently grouped with other Asians, which can be misleading because the populations are quite different, Kreps says.

Also misleading is the general approach of surveying only Asian Americans who are comfortable with the English language. “We get a rosier picture of what’s going on out there,” says Kreps, rather than an accurate one.

Health disparities are problematic for recent immigrants because many aren’t well versed in English when they first arrive in the United States. In Oh’s study, Colorectal Cancer Screening Knowledge, Beliefs, and Practices of Korean Americans, participants wrote the answers in Korean. Oh works with local Korean American community groups to delve into their perceptions and actions about health care and improve the survey response rate.

“We’re not just looking at them, but we’re working with them,” Kreps says. “Her research breaks through those populations. We’re learning things that we’ve never learned before.”

The language barrier means many new immigrants, even those who have intermediate English skills, are reluctant to go to non-Korean doctors.

“We found out one of the big problems is they don’t really trust the American health system,” Kreps says. That means recent immigrants may wait to visit a doctor until they return to Korea to visit family.

“If they have a problem, they have to wait two to three years, and that’s not good if it’s a fast-growing cancer.”

Follow-up care also becomes a problem when the primary care physician is in another country, Oh adds.

Oh and Kreps have also been studying how Korean Americans differ from Korean nationals in their approach to health care. For example, colon cancer rates for Korean Americans are 56 percent higher than rates for their native counterparts, Oh says.

Getting the word out to the Korean-language media is key because that’s where recent immigrants get much of their information, Kreps says. Oh and Kreps are working on boosting the low coverage of cancer-related issues in the Korean media.

“I’ve really enjoyed working with Kyeung Mi,” Kreps says. “She’s a dedicated scholar. There’s no way we could have conducted this research without her passion and hard work.”

This article originally appeared on the university’s News site.

To read more stories about Mason, check out the university’s News site.

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