A student-led study on the sun protection habits of young people, published through the support of Department of Family Medicine faculty and staff, has blossomed into a multi-department initiative at the University of Michigan (U-M).
Ten sunscreen dispensers are being installed across six sport facilities on the Ann Arbor campus to protect spectators at U-M sporting events from sun exposure, thanks to a unique collaboration between the Department of Family Medicine, Impact Melanoma, Rogel Cancer Center, and U-M Athletic Department.
The initiative had its origins in the MyVoice project, a long-term research initiative spearheaded by Family Medicine faculty member Tammy Chang, MD, MPH, MS. The group, which places a significant focus on the involvement of young people in the research process, polls youth ages 14 to 24 on various health topics.
One of these surveys asked a group of 977 young people from across the country about how and when they used sunscreen. Although 90.1% of participants (840 of 932) reported sunscreen use, 81.1% (751 of 926) noted having had one or more sunburns, with 28.4% (263 of 926) reporting five or more.
To increase the use of sun protection among youth, respondents suggested demonstrating the consequences of sun exposure (41.1%; 405 of 932); using traditional media (16.8%; 165 of 932); and increasing product accessibility (10.6%; 104 of 932). The results were published as a letter, “Assessment of Sun Protection Knowledge and Behaviors of US Youth,” in November 2021 in JAMA Network Open.
Two former U-M medical students who served on the MyVoice team, Arianna Strome and Kelsey Herbert came up with the hypothesis that many young people didn’t use sunscreen because they weren’t fully aware of its health benefits.
“It’s not that (young people) don’t know about sunburns and skin cancer,” said Strome, who is completing her internship year at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York and will then do a dermatology residency at New York University. “They don’t have access to sunscreen. It’s expensive. It’s hard to find.”
The study authors collaborated on a proposal requesting funding to buy and place sunscreen dispensers in locations accessible to students and their family members. After several months of meeting with potential donors and collaborators, they created a groundswell of support from Rogel Cancer Center, the Athletic Department, MyVoice, Boston-based non-profit Impact Melanoma, and the Department of Family Medicine. Together, these organizations have collaborated to install the sunscreen dispensers at the entrances the U-M Soccer Complex, Alumni Field, Fisher Stadium, the U-M Lacrosse Stadium, the Varsity Tennis Center and the U-M Golf Course.
“From our survey, we thought, let’s put the sunscreen where it needs to be,” Strome said. “If we give people access to soap to wash their hands, we should give people access to sunscreen when they go out in the sun. It is a simple and effective public health measure."
Dispensers contain SPF 30 sunscreen and are targeted at sports fields spectators. Athletes who participate in sports at U-M are already provided sunscreen by the Athletic Department.
Dispenser installation is taking place this month. The MyVoice team, particularly med student Olivia Lamberg, worked with Impact Melanoma to procure the sunscreen dispensers.
“This really is a public health issue,” said Lamberg, who expects to graduate from U-M Medical School in 2024. "As healthcare providers, it's valuable to recognize that at times, our role needs to expand to help increase access to resources."
The Athletic Department staff was more than happy to work with students on the community-action portion of their study.
“We in Athletics were very supportive of the idea (of sunscreen dispensers) when the MyVoice team approached us,” said Paul Dunlop, associate athletic director at U-M. “I think it’s a great amenity to offer free sunscreen to our guests and fans attending outdoor athletic events. With ever-increasing awareness of skin protection, I would anticipate the dispensers will be well-received by our guests and fans at the various outdoor venues.”
Once the dispensers are fully installed, the MyVoice team will track usage, collect data and ideally provide evidence that the dispensers are not only promoting sunscreen usage and preventing sunburns, but sparking conversations among family members and younger people about the importance of regular sunscreen use to prevent sunburns.
“Our goal ultimately is to create a culture change and to serve as an example institution for other institutions to do similar work,” Strome said. “It’s special to make a difference in larger groups of people and it shows the impact that medical school students can have.”
Chang said that all members of the unique program strive to generate research findings that have great impact.
“This is a great example of MyVoice student researchers doing the work it takes to translate research findings into real-world benefit for our local community,” she said. “So many people will benefit thanks to their amazing efforts."
Arianna Strome, MD, Kelsey Herbert, MD, Kevin Walsh, MD, Olivia Lamberg, BS, Marika E. Wasalewski, MPH, Tammy Chang, MD, MPH, MS. Assessment of Sun Protection Knowledge and behaviors of US youth. JAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(11):e2134550. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.34550