Carla VandeWeerd

Director Carla VandeWeerd in her office at UF Health Precision Health Research Center.

The early topics at The Villages’ newest avenue for improving health care are all focused on innovation — from carving out a role for genetics in routine care to finding drugs that can help COVID-19 long-haulers.

A key question is, what do people actually want?

The UF Health Precision Health Research Center - The Villages is listening to seniors here, not just university leaders and faculty, as it sets up its first year of research. It hosted its first focus groups Tuesday morning.

“It’s about making sure that they are able to guide the ship and that’s in a wide range of areas that are of interest to them,” director Carla VandeWeerd said of the first groups of Villagers who toured the facility and voiced their priorities.

Topics that came up include centralized access to electronic medical records, genetic profiles, even fundamentals such as physical therapy.

“Exercises that I can do at my age, because it’s more and more limited what I can do, so I would like to understand more about what’s available,” said Preston Davis, of the Village of Poinciana.

Eyes on Helping Others

At 83 and coping with arthritis, golfing or walking can become more of a strain than they used to be, Davis said. But like many, he wants to remain active. “Just learning about things that are available to me, that’s important.”

The opportunity for residents to share their own ideas about what’s needed here, or studies happening elsewhere that could be brought here, was welcomed by Rick Gray. His family’s medical history was on his mind, including its possible impact on younger generations.

“Cognitive is more of an issue for me, I have a family history of Alzheimer’s,” said the Village of Fernandina resident. “So, I’m obviously interested in the direction that’s headed and what potential improvements there are that I can do for myself, through participating in studies — not only for helping me, but for my children and my grandchildren as well.”

The tendency to think of others stood out to VandeWeerd, even on the first day of hearing from residents.

“There’s a real sense of altruism from the people in the room, benefiting people who don’t have the opportunity to live in a community like The Villages,” she said. “Getting engaged in research and being able to have these things, but also that they’re sharing it, being able to help other people or their children.”

Setting The Right Path

With plans to speak to as many as 10 groups of residents, VandeWeerd said the input can be helpful as far as five years out when it comes to program planning.

The Villages’ track record of participation in studies has long drawn research centers to the area. More than 670 recruiting clinical trials are taking place within 50 miles of The Villages, according to clinicaltrials.gov. More than 20 of those, including several about Alzheimer’s disease, are taking place at Charter Research in Lady Lake.

“No study can move forward without participants in a clinical trial,” Charter CEO Jeff Pohlig said. “Being located in The Villages provides an advantage compared to other large metropolitan areas … and it’s not just that the demographics are right, but it’s the smart, educated people who are residents. They not only are willing to participate, they’re compliant with instructions, they show up for their appointments, and that really aids the research significantly.”

Many studies are the result of partnerships between health care companies, universities and clinics, Pohlig said, pointing to an Alzheimer’s study at Charter that’s a joint research effort with Japanese pharmaceutical company Eisai and the University of Southern California.

“There are a lot of collaborative products in our industry. People who are not familiar sometimes find it shocking to see that what they think of as competitors are working together,” he said.

Partnerships in Place

VandeWeerd said partnership efforts are familiar to UF Health as well. The studies on COVID patients with long-lasting after effects is part of Operation Warp Speed, for instance. And another planned study to look at taking vital signs through toilet seats that can send data directly to providers will work with a private company.

“We’re very open to collaborating with state and federal agencies, with people from other institutions, really with people who have the right sentiment and are really willing to put the community first, we’re very happy to engage in that kind of dialog and partnership as we move forward,” she said.

Location is important to residents who prefer not to drive to Gainesville regularly, VandeWeerd said. And Dr. Colleen G. Koch, dean of the UF College of Medicine, said the location of the new research center will help.

“Being able to offer precision health research in The Villages, America’s Healthiest Hometown, represents an unprecedented opportunity for us to truly reshape medicine, including preventive care, so that our friends and neighbors can live longer, healthier lives.”

For more information about the UF Health Precision Research Health Center, call 352-247-2493, email villagesresearch@gmail.com or visit tinyurl.com/UFVillagesResearch.

Specialty Editor Bill Zimmerman can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5284, or bill.zimmerman@thevillagesmedia.com.