January 28, 2014  

Keeping Healthcare Real with Cynthia Callahan Davis

By Amy Jasper

As the Affordable Care Act comes into effect throughout the state, community health advocates are turning their attention to newly available resources for longer-term healthcare in underserved communities.

But for Cynthia Davis, Assistant Professor in the College of Medicine and the College of Science and Health at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science (CDU), resources for preventative care services are only the first step in building effective continuing healthcare. In order to really reach people, she keeps her finger on “the pulse of the community and (understands) the community norms and taboos associated with discussing sexual and reproductive health.”

Put simply, “You gotta keep it real,” Davis says.

In Davis’ almost 30 years as a public health practitioner, she has learned a thing or two about reaching out to women in South Los Angeles. Davis spearheaded the first HIV/AIDS mobile testing pilot demo program in Los Angeles County in 1991.

Since then, the program has been replicated and resulted in funding to more than 60 other programs that are considered best practices and examples of standards and best practices for care. And she has landed a recent $350,000 grant from the California Wellness Foundation which may provide the resources she needs.

The one-year grant by The California Wellness Foundation was awarded to support the implementation of a Women’s Wellness Collaborative, a mobile testing project of CDU. It will also fund the Video Opportunities for Innovative Condom Education and Safer Sex, or “VOICES,” a culturally specific, video-based intervention for STD clinic patients promoted by the CDC.

Davis is hopeful about what the funding might mean for underserved women.
“(This is an) opportunity to see if by using this new model, we can have more positive health outcomes in our community when you look at all the health disparities that exist in medically underserved community.”

Davis was first recruited to CDU in the early 1980’s as a member of the pediatrics staff. Within a few years, her focus shifted toward combining elements of teen pregnancy prevention programs with those that prevented the spread of HIV, as well. Her approach was a deeply community-specific one, focusing on cultural norms that would resonate with at-risk youth.
Her work was quickly noticed. From 1986 to 1992, Davis worked with the National Organization of Black County Officials on a Center for Disease Control grant that targeted African Americans in rural and urban areas. The grant focused on helping school districts create culturally appropriate prevention intervention. Her community-based model has garnered the trust of women, even in light of the persisting taboos associated with sexual and reproductive health.

“We’re a trusted organization within the community -- highly respected in the community,” says Davis. “Because of our history … and seeing me out there in the community on a regular basis for 30 years, people feel comfortable. There’s not a lot of fear, there’s not a lot of apprehension, because they know that we’re there to serve the community.”

Davis says that women who have participated in the project have been forthcoming about their health, and that they take initiative to seek referrals for primary healthcare services. “We’ve been very fortunate in that we’ve developed a model that has been replicated around the country,” including the establishment of 67 similar programs throughout Southern California.

Today, Davis continues to be involved with the mobile-testing program, while also leading CDU plans to work with 6-8 nonprofit and community-based organizations to establish best practices for HIV/AIDS prevention and intervention. Her work will also entail providing health-related services and education to medically underserved and at-risk minority women.  Davis hopes that partnering with organizations that have proven track records making an impact on the target population will attract long-term funding to sustain the program.

Here are a few health tips from Ms. Davis on HIV/AIDS prevention:

  • The majority of HIV infections are transmitted through unprotected sex: use a male or female water-based lubricated condom during vaginal or anal sex.
  • Injection drug users should be sure to use clean needles and safely dispose of used needles.
  • HIV/AIDS is transmitted through blood or bodily fluids: HIV/AIDS cannot be transmitted by kissing or by standing in close proximity to an individual living with HIV/AIDS.
  • Talk to your partner about practicing safe sex.
  • Get tested regularly for HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

For more information about STD testing and to locate clinic sites, you can visit or call the Los Angeles County STD Program Hotline at 1-800-758-0880.

For more information, please contact:
  Jessica Gelzer
(w) 323.892.2080 (c) 818.399.4088




About Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science
CDU is a private, nonprofit, nonsectarian, minority-serving medical and health sciences institution. Located in the Watts-Willowbrook area of South Los Angeles, CDU has graduated more than 550 medical doctors, 2,500 post-graduate physicians, more than 2,000 physician assistants and hundreds of other health professionals. CDU has earned designation as a minority-serving institution by the U.S. Office for Civil Rights, and its College of Medicine is recognized by the Department of Education as a Historically Black Graduate Institution. The University is also a charter member of the Hispanic-Serving Health Professions Schools. CDU is recognized as a leader in translational and health inequities research, specifically with respect to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, mental health, and HIV/AIDS. The CDU/UCLA medical program was named the “best performer” in the University of California System with respect to producing outstanding underrepresented minority physicians by the Greenlining Institute. For more information, visit


1731 East 120th Street, Los Angeles, CA 90059
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A Private University with a Public Mission

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