Montana State University

MSU professor, health care worker team up to improve communication in Libby

January 26, 2009 -- Anne Pettinger, MSU News Service

MSU nursing professor Charlene Winters, left, and Kimberly Rowse, a health care worker in Libby, are teaming up to focus on effective communication between researchers and the public.   High-Res Available

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A Montana State University student who recently interviewed Libby residents for a research project said her visits to that community illustrate the complexity of the place and the people who live there.

"When people think of Libby, asbestos usually is the first thing to come to mind," said Mystel Creighton, a student who recently graduated from MSU's nursing program. "Through this project, I have learned that Libby is much more than that. It was a great opportunity to have one-on-one conversations with the residents and be able to listen to their perspectives."

Creighton's interviews were part of a new project, focused on effective communication between researchers and the public, that MSU researchers and health care workers are undertaking in Libby, a small community that has become known nationally for its exposure to asbestos.

The need for a thoughtful assessment of how to communicate research in Libby is great, said Charlene Winters, an MSU nursing professor based in Missoula and one of two people heading the project.

"Over the course of eight to 10 years, the community has been under a microscope," Winters said. "Researchers come in, do surveys or other research, and then leave... We hope to come up with a model to better communicate and facilitate research in rural communities."

"When we do outreach in our own community, we see a lack of understanding about what research has been done," added Kimberly Rowse, who works at the Center for Asbestos Related Disease (CARD) in Libby. Rowse also lives in Libby and, with Winters, is heading the project.

The project is funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Nursing Research. Winters said one goal of the two-year grant is to develop a model for researchers working with rural communities.

Winters said the researchers also hope the project will raise the level of public awareness, involvement, understanding, and acceptance of research in Libby, a rural community of about 2,600 located in Montana's northwest corner.

The project is divided into three parts. First, the researchers will complete a community assessment by interviewing community members. Among other things, the researchers will ask questions to learn about the history of research in the community and infrastructure available to support communication in the community. They'll also ask about Libby residents' preferred methods of communication.

Winters noted that a community advisory board made up of about 10 Libby residents has been advising the researchers, giving them guidance on everything from what questions to ask to whom to interview.

The researchers are also conducting a survey of community residents and reviewing existing reports and publications about research conducted in Libby.

The second phase of the two-year project is to design, implement and evaluate strategies for communicating research opportunities and results to Libby residents.

Finally, the researchers hope to provide a foundation for the development of a model that fosters community involvement in research and guides researchers in working in rural communities.

As part of the community assessment phase, Creighton and several other MSU students, under the supervision of Rowse and MSU nursing professor Sandra Kuntz, conducted interviews with about 14 people who represent various segments of the Libby community.

The students who conducted the interviews said the work was gratifying.

"At first I was hesitant to work on this project," said Jesse Arneson, who recently graduated from the MSU nursing program. "I thought the topic was sort of old news, but I found out quickly that the issues related to asbestos in Libby are still very pertinent.

"As a student, this project was a great opportunity to participate in research. I learned a lot about both the issues and how research can be conducted in a small community," Arneson added.

The research also should provide a benefit to the people who need it most, Creighton said.

"Most research that is done is only published in scientific journals, and not disseminated to the people who really need it," she said. "This project made a step towards making this possible."

Rowse noted that Libby residents enjoyed talking to the students and have been enthusiastic in general about the project.

"The Libby community is very excited about the project," she said. "Interviewees said it was gratifying to have students interested in the community."

MSU researchers said they became involved with Libby after being contacted by a nurse at CARD.

This is MSU's second partnership with CARD. The first project explored the health status of Libby residents who were exposed to asbestos, including the psychological effects of asbestos exposure.

Winters said she is grateful for the opportunity to work with the Libby community.

"Libby is unique due to the magnitude of the environmental disaster affecting the rural community," she said. "My interest in research is adaptation to chronic illness and rural health issues, and Libby provides a perfect opportunity to find out how people live with chronic illness and how they can live in a healthy way."

Similarly, Rowse said people at CARD have been happy to work with MSU.

"MSU provided an opportunity for not only our patients and staff to learn, but also our community," Rowse said. "MSU provided an opportunity to show how research can translate into interventions. It's been a very positive working relationship."

Though Winters, Rowse and their team are working with a small community, the effects of asbestos in Libby, and consequently the group's research, may be far-reaching.

"The disaster happened in Libby, but many people outside of Libby, from Troy and Eureka to Kalispell, and even in other states, have been affected," Rowse said.

"This is a local story, but it's also a world story," Winters added. "It's a huge issue."

Charlene Winters, (406) 243-4608 or