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Medical school seeks solutions to boost community health

Tuesday, December 6, 2016 by Chad Swiatecki

The Dell Medical School is on the lookout for ideas big and small that may improve the health of Austin’s vulnerable communities concentrated in East Austin.

The school’s Center for Place-Based Initiatives (CPBI) put out the call for ideas and hopes to bring local nonprofits, researchers, business investors and many other resources to bear in an effort that’s expected to become a twice-yearly harvest of input from throughout Central Texas.

The program, which doesn’t have a formal name yet, puts the medical school directly in the fray of the effort to improve health care for the uninsured and communities in need of a health safety net. Making that mission central to the medical school project was what caused Travis County voters in 2012 to approve $35 million in bond funds for expanded community health care services.

The CPBI was created with a $2.5 million grant from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation that was awarded in December 2015. That money was separate from the foundation’s $50 million grant that was announced in 2013.

The CPBI was created as part of a $50 million donation from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation.

Ideas for efforts that could potentially improve the health of groups such as ethnic minorities, the elderly, the disabled, and the geographically isolated or low-income residents are being accepted through Jan. 6. Those with the most promising ideas will be paired with school faculty or business and nonprofit leaders who are best equipped to plan and develop them, with up to $50,000 in trial and research funding available from the CPBI.

Lourdes Rodríguez, director of the CPBI and former community health advocate in New York state, said the effort is aiming to “democratize solutions” for what might seem like small problems in communities but that can have a hidden adverse effect on health and access to health care resources. She said she hopes to receive 60 ideas in this round, with 16 already submitted and undergoing early evaluation.

“It could be a research project or an idea that goes more of an engineering route for a product or program,” Rodríguez said. “We’re not seeking to be exclusively a place of research, and we want to be an alternative entry point for solutions to problems in the community.”

As an example, Rodríguez touched on her experience involving a northern Manhattan community park that had become run-down and a hot spot for illicit activity. Volunteers worked to clean up and repair the park after years of neglect, but what made the difference was starting walking tours of the park to change residents’ minds about its safety, encouraging the local high school to hold physical fitness programs there and pushing area churches to host family events there as well.

In Austin, one possible winning idea was discovered by Ofelia Zapata while she was talking with Eastside Memorial High School administrators earlier this year. Zapata, who is the president of the school’s parent/teacher association and a board member of Austin Interfaith, learned that widespread lack of access to health care for the students caused high absentee rates, lowered the likelihood of graduation and caused reduced funding for the school.

Eastside’s principal had tried years prior to get a wellness center installed in the school, but lack of time and resources to devote to its creation caused it to be mothballed.

Now Zapata hopes that the medical school’s mandate to improve community health in Austin will make that wellness center and other similar efforts a priority. Such a project could see a group of Austin’s health care-related groups such as CommUnityCare, Seton Healthcare Family and Central Health pitch in to increase access at Eastside, helping students become healthier and better able to succeed academically.

Along with reducing illness, Zapata said a school wellness center could provide information to students that could reduce the rate of teen pregnancy, because sex-related conversations are unlikely to happen between teens and their parents.

“Everyone wants to do it, but organizations can’t implement something without community buy-in,” Zapata said. “When we collaborate as nonprofits in health care, we can create something that makes a difference in the life of adolescents.”

This story has been corrected to clarify funding for the Center for Place-Based Initiatives. Regents Creek rendering of Dell Medical School.

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