Biomedical scientist brings research findings to health promotion in the workplace

Pouran Faghri

Americans profess a deep interest in being healthy and living as long as possible without disease or disability, but achieving those goals is challenging. Changing behavior for healthy living takes education, collaboration and energy, elements Pouran Faghri, professor in the Department of Allied Health Sciences, is uniquely qualified to offer.  From the beginning of her career, Faghri was interested in improving people’s lives and promoting health through health behavior changes.

Faghri holds MD and MS degrees in physiology and biophysics and has joint appointments as professor in the Biomedical Engineering Program in the School of Engineering and professor of community medicine and health care at the University of Connecticut Health Center. She completed a fellowship at the National Center for Rehabilitation Engineering (NCRE) at the Wright State University School of Medicine and received a prestigious Rowdy Postdoctoral Fellowship.

Her original research focused on working with people with spinal cord injury (SCI). She came to realize that to improve the life of a person with a disability, one must go beyond their limitations. She also found that the disabled and the general public are remarkably similar in the causes of ill health.

“Even though a person with spinal cord disability is suffering from some type of paralysis, the leading cause of death is not the disability but conditions related to life style, including being sedentary, unhealthy diet, diabetes and obesity – the same as the general population,” Faghri says.

Faghri’s biomedical research focuses on biomechanical and metabolic evaluation of exercise in both able-bodied and disabled individuals. Using functional electrical stimulation (FES) technology, she evaluated the effects of this technology in inducing function in people with spinal cord injury and stroke. She was part of a research team that developed the first FES- induced cycle ergometer. The system allows a person with spinal cord injury to exercise themselves despite their paralyzed muscles and to experience better cardiovascular performance. Presently, as part of her research she is optimizing the system for better performance for individuals with different levels of fitness, anthropometrics characteristics and age level.

“The original FES-cycle ergometer was developed based on the technology that was available 20 years ago, and we now have better understanding of the musculoskeletal system and better computer and software technology to improve the system,” Faghri says.

As one of the leading researchers in FES technology, she used this skill for other applications, including the prevention of shoulder subluxation in stroke patients and prevention of deep venous thrombosis. Deep venous thrombosis is a life threatening condition that occurs when a person is in a sedentary position for a long period of time as with muscle paralysis, coma or prolonged surgery. She is the sole inventor and holds a patent on the Electronic Muscle Pump, which improves circulation and helps prevent blood clots.

This summer, in collaboration with her colleagues at the UConn Health Center, she received funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to evaluate the effect of FES for tissue regeneration, more specifically muscles and tendons.

“This is an exciting area and the results could help tremendously those with amputee or other tissue losses,” says Faghri.

Faghri’s health promotion research interests extend to able-bodied people as well. She understands how to connect with the average person who wants to live a healthier lifestyle but feels impeded by lack of time, information, social support or encouragement. She found that the workplace, where 65 percent of adults spend time, is an efficient place to reach individuals with health information and intervention.

With funding from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) through the Connecticut Department of Public Health, Faghri and a team of professionals developed a tool kit for health promotion programs for small to midsize companies. The kit provides step-by-step strategy for implementing a health promotion program at the workplace from the assessment of employees’ risk factors for disease, attitudes and healthy behaviors to tailored intervention for addressing the problem and evaluation of the intervention. The toolkit was later adopted and used by the CDC to promote worksite health promotion programming.

Faghri developed and implemented the first workplace health promotion program for the State of Connecticut, called ConnectiFIT. Through this program, employees were encouraged to change their lifestyles for healthier behaviors including increasing physical activity while at work through pedometer walking programs, eating healthfully by choosing healthier food options at the cafeteria and offering a farmers’ market to provide local produce for all employees.  Furthermore, a website put the program online where workers can get health information and be reminded to add fitness activities to their daily life.

“The workplace offers the opportunity to target a large population through better communications, environmental and policy changes. Promoting good health makes sense for employers as productivity increases and absenteeism decreases,” Faghri adds.

Most programs encourage citizens to walk more and eat healthy foods, but Faghri and her team decided to be more creative than that. Employees were encouraged to form teams to add 20 percent more steps to their day. Pedometers and weekly walking logs were provided, and soon people were walking at their lunch breaks.

A farmers’ market, coordinated by the Department of Agriculture, gave employees access to healthier food by offering locally grown fruits and vegetables at weekly open markets. Efforts were made to offer healthier choices at workplace cafeterias and workers responded positively to the changes.

When the programs were evaluated, the results were significant. Employees who participated in the walking program covered 6.4 to 8.8 miles each week. Participants with stage one hypertension reduced their systolic and diastolic blood pressure. An overwhelming 98 percent of employees who attended health education programs reported that they learned more about what they needed to do to lead healthier lives. The results of this research have been published in scientific journals.

Faghri’s success with ConnectiFIT and other health promotion programs led to the formation of a new Center for the Promotion of Health in the New England Workplace (CPH-NEW) as a joint project of the University of Connecticut Health Center, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and the University of Connecticut. It is a research center for excellence funded by the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health with more than $9 million to date in funding.  Faghri is the principle investigator of the program for the Storrs campus. The center integrates health promotion with occupational health interventions. There is a strong emphasis on musculoskeletal, cardiovascular and mental health outcomes.

“The ultimate goal of worksite health promotion is to create a culture that values and meets both individual and organizational needs for health improvement. Companies receive many benefits after implementing a worksite program in addition to reducing costs. They include increases in employee morale, improved employee health, reduction in workers compensation claims, reduction in absenteeism and increases in productivity,” says Faghri.

Faghri is also co-director of the University of Connecticut Center for Environmental Health and Health Promotion. She is chairing the first center annual conference on worksite health promotion entitled Health, Workplaces and the Environment: Cultivating the Connection in October 17, 2013. Individuals interested in attending should visit the conference website.

Pouran Faghri is a respected and highly productive researcher with more than 65 peer-reviewed publications and the author of books and chapters in books. She is also committed to teaching and has served as major or associate advisor to more than 65 graduate students at both PhD and MS levels.

With a rare combination of training, inventiveness and a passion for helping her fellow human beings enjoy fuller healthier lives, Pouran Faghri brings effective programs to the workplace. Her work is recognized on a national level while touching individuals where they live and work.

By Nancy Weiss