Local health leaders gathered Monday at Mayo Clinic to celebrate 50 years of the groundbreaking Rochester Epidemiology Project, while also announcing a new outreach program over the next year.

The one-of-a-kind project was created in 1966 as a collaboration between Mayo Clinic and Olmsted Medical Center, spurred by annual funding from National Institutes of Health. It has since added Olmsted County Public Health, while expanding to include 26 other counties and eight dental offices.

Dr. Leonard Kurland's brainchild has been called a "hidden gem" that directly led to more than 2,600 publications and 22 major federally funded health research initiatives. Mayo issued a press release saying that "this fountain of knowledge would provide the underpinnings of many significant population health findings."

Community experts met for six hours Monday at the Plummer Building to hear updates on the ongoing research. More than a dozen speakers addressed the crowd, capped by comments from Mayo Clinic CEO John Noseworthy and current REP co-director Dr. Walter Rocca.

"This unique national resource is unmatched in our country in terms of the depth and breadth of information about a single population," Dr. Rocca said. "And it does not have a lot of international equivalents either.

"The REP allows us to answer questions that cannot be answered anywhere else. Without the foresight and collaboration of the health care providers in Olmsted County over 50 years ago, we never would be able to do what we do today — to discover something new tomorrow."

More than 95 percent of Olmsted County residents are part of the REP database, which has led to research breakthroughs in a variety of areas — including brain health, cancer, children's health and gender-related health issues.

Pete Giesen, director of Olmsted County Public Health, says his department joined REP in 2014, which helped set the stage for the first Community Health Needs Assessment that same year. He says the project "can help inform and prioritize community strategies to address the health problems facing our community."

Dr. Linda Williams says that 92 percent of OMC patients give their consent for their medical records to be used as part of the REP research, while using a Institutional Review Board to "scrupulously protect their health information."

"Pooling our information gives a complete picture of the health and disease of our community," Williams said. "Patterns of health and illness are used to improve medical care and treatments."

The local collaborators have scheduled three events next month to help promote the project and raise its profile, as part of a year-long push. An information booth will be available in the Gonda Building lobby Oct. 3-7 from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., with a one-hour presentation planned for Wednesday, Oct. 5.

Another event is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Oct. 13 in the Gonda lobby, where the public is invited to stop by to "meet the researcher."

REP will also have a booth at the Rochester Women's Fall Expo that's scheduled for Oct. 29.

Dr. Rocca says that the first 50 years of REO are "just the beginning" as the local group takes aim at addressing major health issues in the years to come.

"We will continue to build our understanding of diseases, health behaviors and environmental contributors, and their impact on future health status," Rocca said. "With this information, we can develop ways to prevent or change the course of diseases, and, hopefully, one day, to eradicate them."

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