In the war against racial and ethnic health disparities, Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood is a battlefield. Compared to the city as a whole, this impoverished, predominantly African-American community on the South Side has disproportionately high rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, asthma, premature birth and infant mortality.
Chicago-based Access Community Health Network (ACCESS), the nation’s largest network of federally qualified community health centers, hopes to change that. Under the leadership of its CEO, Donna Thompson, RN, MS, the organization has received a nearly $7 million National Institutes of Health grant — the first for a federally qualified health center network — to build a health disparities research center in Englewood. Scheduled to open in 2013, the ACCESS Center for Health and Learning will partner with Englewood residents to find solutions for closing the gap of unequal health outcomes — an innovative approach that the NIH hopes will become a national model for medically underserved communities.
Thompson discussed what she wants the center to accomplish and how its community-based participatory research programs will work with Nurse.com.
Q. Speaking from your dual perspective as a health system CEO and a nurse, why did ACCESS decide to undertake this landmark project?
A. Research is something we have strongly emphasized at ACCESS over the years. At the same time, our organization’s mission is to help our patients achieve optimum wellness. As we looked at how we could make a difference in the communities our health centers serve — communities where disparities in healthcare are, unfortunately, often the norm — we started asking ourselves: How can we work with the community differently to make them more empowered? What if we started really being a game-changer in terms of how the community could participate, guide, motivate and act as a resource in helping us address health disparities issues?Donna Thompson, RN
Q. Why did you choose Englewood as the location for the research center, rather than other Chicago communities of color that also have high rates of health inequities?
A. ACCESS has a long history of providing services in Englewood. But the research center will not be limited to just serving this one neighborhood. We will be inviting researchers from the larger Chicago medical community [such as Northwestern University and the University of Chicago] and will host them in our building, because we know that the health disparities that plague Englewood also exist in many other communities. We also know that each community has its own distinct needs.
Q. Why is it so important to directly involve community residents in the research process?
A. Engaging the community is a must. The community does have power, as well as firsthand insight into what will and won’t work. When we sat down at the table with Englewood residents, faith-based partners and other community organizations to start planning our research center, the key message that came out of the focus groups was: “Don’t tell me what I need. Ask me what I want and what’s the best way to provide it to me.”
Q. Can you give examples of how the research center will partner with community residents to develop solutions for reducing health disparities?
A.We’re involving the community in the planning process every step of the way — from the design of the building to the selection of researchers to host and issues to study. But our ultimate goal is to empower residents to take control of their health and become active participants in their own care. That means teaching them how to understand and apply the recommendations that will emerge from this research. In many cases, people do want to improve their health, but they don’t have the information at hand to help them understand what they need to do differently. •
Pam Chwedyk is a freelance writer.