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Mark L. Robbins, Ph.D.

Photo of Mark L. Robbins, Ph.D.Mark L. Robbins, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Psychology Department, University of Rhode Island, Kingston, Rhode Island
Feasibility of Expert System to Promote African American Blood Donation for SCD

Administered by the NHLBI Division of Blood Diseases and Resources, Blood Diseases Branch
FY 2009 Recovery Act Funding: $247,368

Additional Funding:
Feasibility of Expert System to Promote African American Blood Donation for SCD
Administered by the NHLBI Division of Blood Diseases and Resources, Blood Diseases Branch
FY 2010 Recovery Act Funding: $186,820
More information about the grant
Total funding: $434,188

Research Focus: Mark L. Robbins, Ph. D., a clinical psychologist, has played the drums since the sixth grade. While he was tempted to pursue a music career, Dr. Robbins chose a research career in psychology studying changes in health behavior, including ways to improve organ and blood donation rates. As part of his Recovery Act grant, Dr. Robbins and his research team are seeking ways to boost the number of blood donors within the African American community. For certain medical conditions, such as sickle cell disease, there is a pressing need for African Americans to donate blood to increase the success of transfusions.

In sickle cell disease, which in the U.S. predominately affects African Americans, the patient's misshaped blood cells, do not flow smoothly through blood vessels causing pain, serious infections, and organ damage. Blood transfusions can help sickle cell disease patients manage their condition. However, to ensure a safe transfusion, the donor's blood must have the same antigens, or markers on the surface of the red blood cells, as the recipient's blood. The challenge is to have enough donated blood available to ensure compatibility with possible recipients.

At first glance, encouraging blood donation seems to be a daunting task. Few people ever donate blood, and a majority of those who donate never do so again. A tiny fraction of the population, known as "super donors," is responsible for most of the nation's blood supply. But Dr. Robbins said his goal is not to convert every one into becoming regular donors. The key is to convince those who are contemplating becoming donors to take action. "Even a few percentage points could drastically expand the blood supply," he noted. The research team uses interactive surveys to gauge an individual's thoughts about blood donation. For those who have considered it, there are often concerns or misconceptions holding them back from learning more about the process. Addressing those concerns and educating potential donors are key, says Dr. Robbins, who wants to find the most effective means of moving people closer to becoming blood donors. For example, a participant may take a web survey and receive tailored feedback that may help encourage a change in his or her behavior. Tailoring messages will also likely be important. Dr. Robbins' research suggests that many African Americans are unaware that blood from African American donors is often necessary to provide the needed transfusions for patients with sickle cell disease.

Economic Impact: While Dr. Robbins anticipated this project would have been funded sometime in the future, the Recovery Act grant allows him to move ahead now. The University of Rhode Island, like many state - funded institutions, has experienced financial hardships which have affected the sciences. The Recovery Act funds allow Dr. Robbins to hire a graduate research assistant for the project. Funds that support hiring students are key in helping to train the next generation of researchers, according to Dr. Robbins.

Early Love of Psychology: Dr. Robbins' interest in psychology began in high school. While he enjoyed his time playing the drums, he decided tomaintain music as a hobby. He decided to pursue psychology, which led him to his on - going research career. Projects, such as his current one on increasing blood donation rates in African Americans, fit into the larger question that drives his research: What methods are effective in changing health behavior?

"You know the question you're answering now is a small,tiny cog in addressing that large question," he noted. "And you're inspired by that large question." Dr. Robbins hopes his current research can apply to other health activities that require donors, such as organ donation.

Dream discovery: If he could make a breakthrough discovery, Dr. Robbins would want to find one or two factors that could effectively change health behaviors. In general, people avoid change, choosing to stick with the status quo. But finding a few factors that could motivate people to change and maintain behaviors could benefit the health care system.

Drug adherence is one issue that has the potential to improve health care. Dr. Robbins would like to find ways to motivate more patients to take their prescribed medications. "We do a great job of creating new drugs but we are not doing a great job at helping patients use them sufficiently or effectively," he said.

Dr. Robbins hopes his research will help develop new ways to encourage people to become more engaged in their healthcare and be aware of how even small acts, such as blood donation, can have important benefits for the nation's health. While he gave up his music career, he did not retire his drum sticks. Dr. Robbins continues to play drums today, and in the 1990s he was in a rock band that put out a CD. But for now, his main focus is finding ways to help organizations beat the drums for more blood donation.

By Greg Lavine

Last Updated:August 10, 2010

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