Researchers target truck stops

Left: J. Michael Wilkerson, Ph.D.; right: Vanessa Schick, Ph.D.
Left: J. Michael Wilkerson, Ph.D.; right: Vanessa Schick, Ph.D.

UTHealth School of Public Health’s Vanessa Schick, Ph.D., and J. Michael Wilkerson, Ph.D., credit a road trip for sparking the research project that recently earned them a coveted Front of the Envelope Award.

The pair was traveling to a conference last year when they noticed hundreds of trucks parked outside truck stops dotting the Texas highways.

Wilkerson, an assistant professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences, hails from a family of truck drivers and mechanics, and knew firsthand how that life affected drivers and their families. Schick, an assistant professor in the Department of Management, Policy and Community Health who studies sexual health, wanted to know more about the experiences of the sex workers who frequented the truck stops.

When the researchers returned home, they discovered that few studies had been conducted on truck stop communities. What they did find was mostly international in nature and focused on risk for HIV. 

“We were both struck by the lack of data on the expressed needs of this very large and underserved population,” says Schick. “We thought that by targeting truck stops, we had a real opportunity for us to enhance the health of this community.”

Schick and Wilkerson have since joined forces to investigate the health needs of long-haul truckers, sex workers and other individuals who make up the community of truck stops, including truck stop owners. In February, their project entitled, “Opportunities for Public Health Promotion at Truck Stops in Houston, TX,” received a Front of the Envelope award, given annually by UTHealth School of Public Health to faculty conducting innovative research. The award provides up to $25,000 in funding.

The researchers begin collecting data this summer—conducting interviews at stations inside 10 truck stops in the Houston area. Truck stop patrons are invited to enjoy a free cup of coffee or snack, then fill out a quick health assessment on a tablet computer and record an audio account of their personal health concerns.

“To build trust with the participants, we hope that each station will be staffed by interviewers with experience in the trucker or sex work community,” Schick says.

The health challenges facing the truck stop community are many. Truckers on tight schedules may have limited time for exercise and few options for healthy food. Many are on the road and away from family, support systems and health care providers for days at a time. Research suggests that the sex workers who frequent truck stops are often homeless.

While these problems are known to affect truck stop communities, the researchers say they plan to approach their investigation without any preconceived notions, and let the community drive the direction of their work.

We want to talk to the community and ask, ‘What do you want? What do you need? What are your issues? How can we help?’” Schick says.

Wilkerson says the truck stop owners he and Schick have engaged have been enthusiastic about the study, in particular an owner who shared her experiences as a member of a trucker family.

“She told us that no one cares about these guys (truckers) and that it was about time someone cared,” Wilkerson says. “Her story and support of our study was very moving, and made us excited to start our work and help this community.”

—Written by Anissa Anderson Orr