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Access Health nurses help patients in medically underserved communities

Barbara Alif Doran, RN

Barbara Alif Doran moved from Pennyslvania to Chicago 13 years ago to take her first nursing job. She has devoted her career to work as a nurse practitioner for the Access Community Health Network, one of the region’s largest clinical organizations serving low-income and medically underserved communities in Chicago and surrounding suburbs.

“It’s the people who drew me here and it’s the people who have kept me here,” said Doran, RN, CNM, APN. “The patients fuel my fire, and allow me to do this.”

Founded more than two decades ago, Access started as a small group of clinics primarily serving residents of Chicago’s public housing developments. It now has nearly 40 health centers throughout the city and in suburban Cook and DuPage counties, serving nearly 200,000 patients, largely from minority and low-income households. According to Access’ website, 51% of its patients are Hispanic, 32% are African-American and 63% are female. Approximately 42% of the patients are children.

Addressing healthcare disparities

Donna Thompson, RN

Donna Thompson, MSN, RN, has served as Access CEO for 10 years and in an executive capacity with the organization since the middle 1990s. She said Access’ mission is focused on eliminating healthcare disparities for the populations it serves.

Thompson said a major challenge lies in helping those Access serves obtain health insurance coverage, whether through Medicaid or the Affordable Care Act, and in helping clients embrace wellness for themselves and their children.

Thompson said Access is completing part of that mission through various initiatives, including the rollout of its new EPIC electronic medical records system. Spearheaded by Access’ Chief Information Officer Julie Bonello, BSN, MS, and Chief Operating Officer Janie Gawrys, MSN, RN, CPHQ, the system allows the clinics to share patient records with various hospitals to create a continuum of care. Access has reached an agreement to govern such sharing with Mt. Sinai Hospital in Chicago, and the organization intends to reach similar agreements with up to four more hospitals by the end of the year, Thompson said.

Additionally, Access operates a call center to contact patients to remind them of upcoming appointments and reduce no shows, and has created smartphone apps to help patients manage their own care. Access also has renovated many of its clinics and built new facilities in economically troubled places like Chicago’s Inglewood neighborhood, including some with pharmacies inside the clinic.

At the forefront of the mission are Access healthcare providers, Thompson said, which include more than 100 nurses, nurse practitioners and certified nurse midwives.

Thompson, Bonello and Gawrys, all come from nursing backgrounds and have used those experiences to shape the organization’s development.

“I get the question alot: How do you learn to manage?” Thompson said. “And I say, ‘I learned it from the bedside.’ As a nurse for 37 years, I learned very early on to work as part of a team, take in assessments, to listen, to overcommunicate and to ask the right questions. It’s the same thing in leadership.”

Thompson said the leadership team has developed strategies through the years to ensure patient care is enhanced outside the walls of the clinics through community education and partnerships with various community organizations.

Developing relationships

For nurses like Doran, working at Access is more than just a job. She sees about 30 patients a day at two clinics in Chicago’s North Lawndale and Brighton Park neighborhoods,

“Just because they don’t have the same economic ability as others doesn’t mean they don’t get access to the same types of services and facilities,” Doran said. “It’s really what I like about working with Access.”

Many of the women she now sees are daughters, neighbors or friends of patients with whom she has developed relationships over the years, referred to her for both prenatal and primary care. “This is what healthcare is supposed to be about: connections, relationships,” Doran said.

Sheila Harmon, MSN, RN, APN, CDE, of Lynwood, oversees operations at six Access clinics and also works as a diabetes educator. After more than a decade working in nursing for an endocrinology practice at a large local institution, Harmon brought her talents to Access where she works to help patients learn about and adopt lifestyle strategies, improving the health of individuals and entire neighborhoods in groups of up to 25 people at a time.

“I hear them say all the time, ‘There are no other programs like this anywhere in the city,’” Harmon said. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

Jonathan Bilyk is a freelance writer.

By | 2020-04-15T09:16:38-04:00 September 16th, 2014|Categories: Greater Chicago, Regional|0 Comments

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