With the issue of health care reform at the forefront of the political stage, medical research on effective health care for minorities is much needed, and Dr. Lisa Cooper, 46, has made it her career to come up with solutions.

Dr. Cooper’s clinical communication research has been internationally recognized. A 2007 MacArthur Fellow, she conducted research that goes beyond the typical studies of how socioeconomics play a role in health disparities among minorities, instead focusing on how race and ethnicity affect the relationship between patients and their physicians.

When medical research started to show that the quality of health care was unequal based on a person’s race and ethnicity, there was speculation that the doctor-patient relationship may be a part of the problem, said Dr. Som Saha, associate professor of medicine at Oregon Health and Science University.

Dr. Cooper conducted a study looking at the relationships between doctors and patients of the same race and doctors and patients of different races. In 1999, Dr. Cooper made headlines when she published her findings from that landmark study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. She found that race is a factor in health care. In her study, black patients whose doctors are black had a better experience than black patients with non-black doctors.

“She’s not afraid to get her hands dirty,” said Dr. Saha. “Lisa has really been one of the pioneers in doing the hard work of trying to figure what it is that’s giving rise to these disparities, and she’s really focused on how the doctor-patient relationships and encounters between doctors and patients might contribute to the problem.”

Based on her research, Dr. Cooper created interventions as a way to try to improve patient-doctor relations, said Dr. Saha. She also created educational programs, coaching patients in getting more out of their doctor and managing their illnesses, and teaching doctors how to engage more effectively with their patients.

During a time when health care reform may bring millions more underinsured patients, many of them minorities, to doctors, Dr. Cooper’s continued research is more important than ever. “Years down the line we’ll be able to see the fruits of her labor,” said Saha.