Transforming Health Through Services

Rush University community programs increase health 

By Ben Feldheim

At Richard T. Crane Medical Preparatory High School on Chicago’s near West Side, about 250 teens gathered one afternoon last winter in the school’s gymnasium for a Power Hour, a physical activity clinic created by students from Crane and the Rush University College of Nursing.

While there was chatter at the beginning, the students quickly settled, trying out yoga poses and exercises while paying close attention to instructions.

Monique Reed, PhD, RN, a BMO Harris Bank Health Disparities Fellow at Rush, is researching ways to bring more health education to underserved populations such as students at Crane. The goal is to reduce medical disparities between wealthier and less-affluent communities, in part by reducing preventable health conditions. 

Among several efforts, Reed oversees students in the Rush University College of Nursing’s Generalist Entry Master’s Program as they create a curriculum, in collaboration with Crane students, faculty and staff after school hours, that encourages mindful eating and physical activity. Reed’s work is funded with a portion of a $5 million grant from BMO Harris Bank as part of the Building Healthy Urban Communities project — one of many community outreach efforts at Rush.

“Everyone participating gained from this Power Hour program,” Reed says. “The Rush students got hands-on experience leading hundreds of teens in a program. They also recruited their own colleagues for volunteer support, arranged for a Chicago Park District yoga instructor to demonstrate and enlisted Crane staff to assist. Crane itself was in need of diverse after-school programming, and a lot of the Crane students had never actively participated in yoga before.”

Engaging outside the Medical Center to prevent illness 

Lowering health care costs requires preventing disease as much as effective treatment. In tandem, health care education has shifted from classroom lectures to hands-on learning — the types of student experiences for which Rush University is known best.

Today, Rush students and faculty exemplify both shifts, as they work to improve health education, to enhance access to preventive care and to address contributing factors like physical activity and nutrition. 

Through a series of innovative faculty- and student-run programs, Rush University is strengthening the health of its neighbors, while preparing its students for the new realities of health care delivery.

“If we’re really going to achieve health equity, we can’t just address what goes on within the four walls of medical centers,” said David Ansell, MD, MPH, senior vice president of system integration at Rush, who oversees Rush’s community service efforts..

Taking care directly to those in need

In 1991, more than 20 years before the Affordable Care Act required medical centers to engage in community outreach, Rush University created the Rush Community Service Initiatives Program, or RCSIP, to match students and faculty with various community health needs.

The nearby community needs are substantial — especially west and south of downtown Chicago. Less affluent areas of the city face significantly greater health issues and have fewer resources that are nearby to meet the needs.

“In Chicago’s Loop, life expectancy is 85, but five miles away in Garfield Park, the life expectancy is 72,” says David Ansell, MD, MPH, senior vice president of system integration at Rush, who oversees Rush’s community service efforts. “By building relationships and paying attention to what people need, we can go to Garfield Park and bend that life-expectancy curve.” 

RCSIP programs are mostly broken down into the following three types:

  • Health care education, promotion and access, such as community-based clinics;
  • Pipeline training, which mentors and guides high school and college students toward health-related careers;
  • Outreach programs, such as the annual day of service in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., on which RCSIP participants serve breakfast at shelters, provide health screenings and more in honor of the civil rights leader. 

Certain RCSIP programs help people better care for themselves, while also educating their peers, such as 5+1=20. Through this program, Rush volunteers teach students at Chicago Public Schools how to screen for common conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure. The CPS students then are encouraged to bring their family members to health fairs at their schools.

“There are studies that show that peer education programs can get the health message across much better than we clinicians can,” says John Nixon, MD, who as a Rush Medical College student helped create the 5+1=20 program.

Often scheduled to coincide with report card pickup or parent-teacher conferences, health fairs are held in support of programs such as 5+1=20. During these fairs, Rush volunteers supervise screenings and set up referrals to nearby clinics.

In the 2013-14 academic year, more than 840 people attended Rush’s community health fairs. Among the attendees, 274 were referred for diabetes screening, 362 were referred for high blood pressure and 196 were referred for mammograms.

“Every time we do one of these fairs, we find people who are in such dire need of care that we’ve sent them immediately by ambulance to Rush,” says Sharon Gates, senior director of community engagement at Rush. “The doctors have said that they were walking time bombs. They are alive because they attended the health fairs.”

More community outreach, more effective caregivers

Rush faculty, staff and students agree that community outreach develops more committed and well-rounded health professionals. Interest in participating is so widespread that several programs often have waitlists. 

Additionally, the programs continue to be passed down to new students and participants as years pass and Rush’s population changes, which has helped sustain and enrich this effort for the last 25 years.

“Compassion and empathy, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, are critical skill sets to develop,” Ansell says. “They are just as essential as any other health care skill one would describe as technical. In fact, these are the technical skills of exceptional health care professionals.”