Research in Service of Action

DeMaioBillboard

Utilizing services of the SSRC this summer, Associate Professor of Sociology Fernando De Maio and students from the Master of Public Health program have been working with Rush University Medical Center to compile a portrait of what health looks like in the eight West Side and three Oak Park Community Areas that make up the hospital’s city and suburban patient base.

This is among the first projects of the new LAS Center for Community Health Equity (CCHE). Co-directed by Fernando and Dr. Raj C. Shah, a geriatrician and an associate professor in Rush’s Department of Family Medicine and its Alzheimer’s Disease Center, the Center is embarking on an ambitious goal: to help improve community health outcomes and eliminate health inequities in Chicago. By linking the two institutions’ research, teaching and experiential assets in a strategic partnership across disciplines, it aims to connect research and action, recognizing that, “it is not enough to identify a problem and then do nothing to fix it,” Fernando said.

Every three years, as a condition of the Affordable Care Act, non-profit hospitals must conduct a Community Health Needs Assessment describing the health needs of the residents within their service area and to what extent they are meeting them. They receive a mandate and an injunction (don’t exclude any populations within the service area), but get little methodological guidance, Fernando noted. DePaul’s participation through the CCHE now offers an opportunity to introduce “a social science approach” previously missing from Rush’s health assessment, Fernando said. Before, qualitative data was a very small component of the report, which lacked the “richness” valued in social research. “The actual voice of the participants was lost,” he noted.

The benefits of collaboration are already evident. A combination of health care utilization information from Rush, sociodemographic and economic data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), along with GIS mapping and data analysis from the CCHE (assisted by the SSRC) have added a significant change to the next report: Austin will be included in Rush’s Chicago service area for the first time. The 2015 assessment will also include quantitative data collected by a Cook County-wide collaboration of hospitals and qualitative information from focus groups. “The end result, I think, is going to be one grounded in qualitative insight,” Fernando said. “The voice of residents — in Austin, West Garfield Park, North Lawndale and other high-hardship communities — should have a more prominent role in the report.”

DePaul students are benefiting from the opportunity to directly observe the assessment planning, implementation and analysis processes. Students Denisha Brown, Kerianne Burke, Ernesto Flores, Aneta Jedrazsko, Maggie Nava and Adenike Sosina have participated as focus group note-takers, facilitators and transcribers. Denisha and Maggie got to join Fernando on a Rush committee that formulated the focus group questions, and Kerianne helped Fernando and Dr. Shah analyze the CDC data. The SSRC has trained students in how to represent data through GIS maps and how to use SSRC transcription equipment to capture the focus group discussions. Fernando said his preliminary examination of the initial transcripts is already revealing “valuable insight, which should add a layer of richness to the community health needs assessment.”

As of September, the Center will be housed at the Loop campus. An official kick-off event is scheduled for Oct. 29 at Rush. “All of us are really excited by the potential of the Center,” Fernando said. “It is a way for us to meaningfully collaborate across disciplines and professions, with community involvement, and work on one of the big injustices in our city — the simple and stubborn fact that your zip code largely determines your life expectancy.”

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