Dombrowski sees looming health care problem in rural Puerto Rico

Kirk Dombrowksi jumped from majoring in aerospace engineering to computer programming to roofing for a couple of years.

“I went into anthropology because I thought they had really good questions about who we were, what we were as a species, what it meant to be a person,” Dombrowski said. “And tried to answer it for not just for the sort of people who were familiar with it, but for the whole world.”

Yet anthropology lacked the mathematical clarity that Dombrowski sought, so he switched to sociology, which addresses the same questions, but with more rigor.

The switch has paid off.

Recently Dombrowski, now a professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and head of the Minority Health Disparities Initiative, received a $2.9 million grant for a 5-year research project studying how HIV is spread among rural drug users in Puerto Rico. By studying the drug users behavior they aim to develop cost-effective methods to reduce the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C.

“This project will probably have more impact than any project I’ve ever done…I can say that not because were getting smarter or were more brilliant than we ever were,” Dombrowski said, “It’s because the problem is much, much worse than any problem we’ve tried to deal with before.”
Dombrowski came to UNL in 2013 for the chance to grow as a researcher and left New York after 25 years there. Les Whitbeck, a sociologist at UNL, retired and let Dombrowski take over his place in the sociology department.

Dombrowski compared his role on projects to that of a “ring master”. One of the best aspects of Dombrowski’s job is that he has the opportunity to work with skillful young minds.

“I don’t have to be the one coming up with the interesting ideas anymore, that’s the best part of the job,” Dombrowski said with a laugh, “They come up with these interesting ideas and I just get to play along and see how it goes.”

For the project in Puerto Rico, there will be full-time research staff located there for the next two to three years gathering data and conducting tests for HIV and hepatitis C. Dombrowski said they predict hepatitis C rates among injecting drug users in rural Puerto Rico in excess of 70 percent.

Dombrowski points out that the large amount of people who contract Hepatitis C in Puerto Rico could double or triple the number of people who need a liver transplant in the United States. The reason this is important, he said, is because it could stress the Medicare system, and that Dombrowski said people would care about.

“Things that are happening in a far away place that no one is talking about because you don’t have to see them directly are actually going to have a large impact on our health care system,” Dombrowski said.

A large part of Dombrowski’s career involves studying people in hard to reach populations and social disparity. Mindy Anderson-Knott, Director of
Evaluation and Development, said Dombrowski is innovative and gifted at seeing the bigger picture.

“It’s very hard to get people motivated to worry about the health condition of drug addicts, that’s just part of this world,” Dombrowski said, “I worry about it but I don’t expect that most people do.”


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