Dr. Stephen Farrow became a doctor to help his neighbors – he didn’t realize that his work would take him all over the world.
Farrow, an adjunct professor of internal medicine and endocrinology at Wayne State University School of Medicine, was recently honored for his service with the American Association of Clinical Endocrinology (AACE) Outstanding Service Award for Promotion of Endocrine Service to the Underserved. The award recognizes past achievements and encourages the recipients’ continued service.
“I was delighted to receive this award and frankly a little surprised,” Farrow said. “People from India, South America and Europe, as well as the United States, have been recognized for impactful work. To be included in this group is a tremendous honor.”
At the School of Medicine, Farrow consults on inpatient services, provides clinical teaching and research in urban populations.
“Many people in Detroit suffer from diabetes and other obesity-related ailments,” Farrow said. “According to the CDC, diabetes costs the United States approximately $327 billion a year in care and lost productivity. As a world-class research institution, Wayne State’s medical research efforts are important at the individual and family level, but they also impact the entire community. Improved prevention and management help improve our quality of life and boost our economy.”
Farrow is also executive director of the National Diabetes and Obesity Research Institute in Mississippi and co-chairs the state’s Obesity Taskforce. He works with colleagues across Mississippi to prevent and mitigate diabetes and obesity while researching a cure. He splits his time between Detroit and the Gulf Coast to address diabetes and obesity-related ailments.
Farrow grew up in Detroit and graduated from Cass Technical High School. He and his three brothers were raised by his mother.
“Mom sometimes had three different jobs at the same time. It wasn’t easy,” Farrow said. “Mom never told us what to do with our lives, but she emphasized that our family legacy rests on honor, service, integrity and making a positive contribution to society.”
“She was not alone in conveying this message,” Farrow added. “Youth organizations were a vital part of our lives. Boys and Girls Clubs, Boy Scouts, and church helped us focus on academics as well as sports. Boys Club scholarships even helped fund our education.”
Farrow was impressed by how generous youth leaders were with their time.
“The mentorship and guidance of the leaders was critical to us achieving our chosen careers,” he said. “My endocrinology population health work and research is a modest attempt to repay this generosity.”
Farrow’s mother worked several jobs, including one at a hospital, which inspired him to study medicine.
He attended Wayne State, receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1981. He also participated in the postbaccalaureate medical program and the National Institutes of Health’s Minority Biomedical Research Support Program, graduating from the School of Medicine in 1985.
Farrow credits Wayne State’s then-Chair of Endocrinology, Professor James Sowers, with inspiring him to enter the discipline.
“Urban areas like Detroit, as well as many rural populations, have high rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity. These are difficult and expensive to manage, and their complications can be severe, interfering with success in school, earning a living, or raising a family, Farrow said. “Wayne State’s endocrinology faculty demonstrated how clinical and basic research can be fun and fulfilling while contributing to improved quality of life for the community.”
A member of the endocrinology faculty was particularly influential in Farrow’s decision to combine clinical care and community research.
“I was surprised to find my home community reluctant to participate in clinical research studies — ‘we don’t want to be guinea pigs,’ was the common refrain,” he said. “My research mentor—and current chair of endocrinology at Wayne State—Warren Lockette encouraged me to consider the question logically, suggesting ‘Perhaps a lack of knowledge about research safeguards, rather than the idea of clinical research itself, is the problem.'”
To address this, Farrow established the Community Health and Hypertension Research, Education and Screening Team (CHHREST), whose volunteers included medical faculty, licensed and student clinicians, and students from Wayne State, the University of Michigan, and other institutions.
The volunteers provided education and screening and case-finding events in churches and other local locations. In addition to learning how to reduce their health risks, participants learned how regulations protect the autonomy and safety of research volunteers.
Student-athletes played a key role in CHHREST’s success.
“Congregations expect clinicians to be interested in health screening, but having a high-performing student-athlete check your blood pressure or blood sugar is a unique experience,” Farrow said.
CHHREST’s 200 volunteers helped reach 6,000 people through 20 locations in a single day – at minimal cost. This caught the interest of the National Institutes of Health, which invited CHHREST to discuss large-scale, low-cost population health promotion at the Pan American Hypertension Initiative conference.
Farrow’s work with CHHREST led to a pair of Veterans Affairs (VA) Service Excellence and Diversity awards. He also led the team that won the VA Enterprise Innovation Competition to develop new software to speed clinician review of VA electronic medical records.
“The software, which is in use at about 30 VAs, gathers various health data faster than a clinician can. The clinician can then review an electronic chart in minutes—a fraction of the usual time—and spend more time with the patient develop strategies to improve their health,” Farrow said.
Farrow’s VA and CHHREST experiences ultimately led to a role as the founding medical director of the VA enterprise Locum Tenens Program.
“We began by selecting sites in the Veterans Health Administration to orientate our new physician and nurse hires,” he said. “The Tuskegee/Montgomery, Alabama, VA was our first orientation location.”
The program provided vital services throughout the VA, including endocrinology consultation and care for Pacific Islander veterans.
“The Pacific region has high rates of diabetes and obesity,” Farrow said. “Veterans often have to travel to Hawaii or the continental United States for some types of care — an inconvenient, expensive proposition.
“Our endocrinologists flew to clinics in Hawaii, American Samoa and Guam. We later transferred a VA Locum Tenens endocrinologist to permanent employment with the Hawaii VA.”
International work also brought Farrow to South America as part of a Fogarty-sponsored team researching the genetics of hypertension in Bolivians of African descent.
“We examined blood pressure, renal and sweat gland physiology, nutrition, social determinants of health, and genetic factors in Bolivian African Americans,” Farrow said. “We found a lower prevalence of hypertension in our study population despite greater frequency of a gene subtype found in some African Americans with hypertension.”
His research trips also included investigations at Department of Defense sites such as the United States Navy Fighter Weapons School and Naval Special Warfare in San Diego.
“Studying how these highly fit individuals tolerate physically demanding exercise and occupations may help explain the physiological challenges diabetes and hypertension pose to the average person,” Farrow said.
Farrow also supports medical missions. In addition to returning charitable missions to the Philippines with Kiwanis, the Philippine Medical Association and FANAA, he recently deployed with Wayne State medical colleagues on a medical mission to Guatemala.
Farrow has traveled the world, but he has never lost sight of his hometown. He previously served as a professor at Wayne State for 15 years, but left in 2005 to work in the Gulf Coast and Washington, DC. Returning to his current role in 2022, he said he is happy to be back with his alma mater to address important urban health issues.
“The best outcomes depend on accurate diagnosis; expert management of behavior, lifestyle, nutrition and fitness; and appropriate medications. Wayne State has a long and distinguished history of leadership in medical care and research,” said Farrow. “Detroit Medical Center even has a foundation to help develop and support physician expertise in serving underinsured populations. I am excited to serve in a rounding and clinical teaching capacity to help develop skilled, dedicated clinicians as we research cardiovascular and metabolic disease in urban Detroit. The road to optimal health is long and complex, but it is an important, exciting journey.”