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How Does Location Affect Health?

Rush, DePaul University team up to reduce health disparities

Negative social factors make it difficult for many people to access quality care, which in turn negatively affects their health. The establishment of the Center for Community Health Equity — a new collaboration between Rush University and DePaul University — seeks to break the link between hardship and health.

Rush and DePaul will work to identify health disparities, train health care workers and develop ways to collaborate in rapidly evolving health fields. Faculty and health professionals at Rush will work with DePaul social science faculty members to develop projects with the community’s needs at the forefront, evaluate student experiences in community-based clinics and programs, and analyze epidemiological data from Chicago and other cities.

“We hope the center will be a meeting and focal point that will help the entire health ecosystem in Chicago improve the quality of life of our residents,” says Raj Shah, MD, center co-director and associate professor of family medicine with the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center.

“Both Rush and DePaul are dedicated to social justice and engaging communities in meaningful ways. This center takes these principles and integrates them into scholarship, education and community engagement,” says Fernando De Maio, PhD, center co-director and associate professor of sociology at DePaul.

DePaul University and Rush University Medical Center have a history of working together on initiatives ranging from research projects to a joint degree program. In 2014 they formalized a five-year collaboration to plan and coordinate new programs to benefit students in the field of health.

‘Your ZIP code should not determine your life expectancy’ 

Although there are many organizations in Chicago that address health disparities, DePaul and Rush are asking: What is it about location that matters to our health?

“Your ZIP code should not determine your life expectancy,” De Maio says. “No one should be disadvantaged from achieving their full health potential because of social position or other socially determined circumstances.”

But the fact is that where one lives has an effect on health. Through the center, students in DePaul’s Master of Public Health program will focus on health promotion and disease prevention for vulnerable populations. The following are the center’s initial projects:

  • Contribute to Rush's community health needs assessment. Rush has invited DePaul social scientists and students to work on its community health needs assessment. DePaul faculty and students are participating on a methodology task force to shape data collection and analysis, helping the hospital meet its obligations under the Affordable Care Act. Public health graduate students have helped to facilitate focus groups in 11 Chicago community areas, and the center is now working on analysis of the transcripts.
  • Compare health disparities in Chicago to other global cities. Researchers will compare data from Chicago with cities around the world, including Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo, to understand how each addresses health disparities. De Maio wondered, “Might it be that 'poorer' cities have been able to achieve more equitable outcomes with diabetes, asthma, heart disease?”
  • Understand the history of health disparities. Faculty affiliated with the center are working on a book that will compile essential health disparities studies from Chicago. The center hopes to use the book as a foundation for new health equity courses at both institutions.
  • Study community service in the health fields. Social scientists will examine how both medical and liberal arts students change as they become more involved in community service experiences. When students working in the field takes a homeless patient’s blood pressure, De Maio hopes that the students will learn the social context as well as the medical one.

“Combining Rush’s faculty and academic health resources with those of DePaul’s sociological and related academic resources will strengthen the program and assure we have an impact on reducing the gaping health disparities in our midst,” says David Ansell, MD, senior vice president of system integration and professor of internal medicine at Rush, who has been a key advocate for the center. “But most important to the success of this center will be the relationship with our community partners that will help shape and provide direction for our work.”

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