Category Archives: Voices from the Field

Jan 12 2015
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The Imperative to Collaborate Across Disciplines to Make It Easier to be Healthy

Chevy Williams, PhD, MPH, is a fellow at Experience Institute, where she is learning and applying design thinking to social problems. Williams is an alumna of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Health & Society Scholars program at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Chevy Williams

Today, we can get access to just about anything in minutes or hours. Smartphones put a world of information literally at our fingertips. Within minutes, most of us can get food we want, entertainment we desire, even travel to another city. But seeing a doctor, an arguably more immediate need, is not so easy. Creating a Culture of Health requires our collective interdisciplinary expertise to make health and health care as accessible and user-friendly as other products and services we use on a regular basis.

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Before I left academia, I heard the word “interdisciplinary” tossed around a lot, but I saw it practiced in very safe ways. Typical research teams of grants I was on or would review comprised researchers from only the social, psychological, and health and medical sciences.  As public health faculty, I’d hear statements like “Public health is inherently interdisciplinary.” This may be true since public health draws from multiple disciplines, but I couldn’t help but feel that such statements were more a reflection of inertia than anything else.

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Jan 9 2015
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Being Willing to Really Listen Can Help Those Facing Extreme Disparities and Challenges

Malia Davis, MSN, RN, is a nurse practitioner and the director of nursing and clinical team development at Clinica Family Health Services in Lafayette, Colorado. She has cared for patients in the community, including those who are homeless, for more than a decade. She is a 2014 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Executive Nurse Fellow.

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Social and economic disparities define my work each day, and have provided powerful motivation for me to commit my professional life to attempts to minimize these disparities in the health care setting. Community health centers, which provide health care for the homeless, are where some of the sickest and poorest people in our communities seek medical and behavioral health care from people like me, a nurse practitioner who is honored to serve each of these individuals and families. 

Malia Davis

I believe one common misperception is that some of my patients fail to contribute to society. Working in community health care for 12 years—10 of them serving homeless people—I have found that most people are very hardworking. Many work at day labor and other low-wage, temporary jobs that are physically demanding and fraught with challenges of all kinds. I often hear of workers experiencing abuse, failing to get paid, and experiencing unsafe working conditions.

They have, of course, none of the benefits we usually associate with jobs. Instead, they face the stress of not knowing day to day if they will find work and be able to support their families—or not. This stress is often compounded by the personal experience of witnessing, surviving, and overcoming trauma or violence, often while in poverty and with very limited resources for healing physically or emotionally. 

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Jan 8 2015
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The Role of the Chief Nursing Officer in Bridging Gaps Among Health Systems and Communities to Improve Population Health

Jerry A. Mansfield, PhD, RN, is chief nursing officer at University Hospital and the Richard M. Ross Heart Hospital, and a clinical professor at Ohio State University College of Nursing. He is an alumnus of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Executive Nurse Fellows program.

Jerry Mansfield
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Since my doctoral work in public health, I have thought a great deal about the relationship of public health theory and practice and my acute care background. With more than 30 years of progressive leadership experience in a variety of for-profit/non-profit, inpatient and outpatient positions, I am trying to generate dialogue and discern a purposeful plan regarding the role of a Chief Nursing Officer in an academic medical center and the health of the populations we serve in our communities.

Based on earlier work in the 1990s and early 2000s, in 2007 the Health Research and Education Trust (HRET) engaged national experts to address the following question: How can hospitals engage their communities to improve the health of everyone? The report provides a framework and encourages hospital leaders and community members to envision health care in communities beyond the medical services offered by providers; it notes that the production of health is not only medical care, but also our environment, individual behavior, and genetic make-up.

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Jan 6 2015
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Understanding Microcultures of Health: It’s Time for a ‘Deep Dive’ into Culture & Social Networks to Produce Lasting Health Change

Jason M. Fletcher, PhD, is associate professor at the La Follette School of Public Affairs, Department of Sociology, Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, and Department of Population Health Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is an alumnus of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholars program at Columbia University, where he researched the intersection of health and social networks.

Jason Fletcher

While an important priority for improving health and health care in the United States is in focusing on broad notions, such as creating a Culture of Health, there is also a need to consider targeted approaches that make use of the structure of relationships that influence health. Most people consider only a small number of social contacts when discussing important matters. Even though our Facebook friends number in the hundreds or thousands, the number with whom we share close and regular geographic or social space is considerably smaller. Network science is leading the way in uncovering what our microcultures look like and how they operate; these findings should be put to further use to improve population health.

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These “small worlds” of influence are known to have substantial impacts on health—as shown by numerous careful, gold-standard empirical studies. College freshman who are randomly assigned a roommate who binge drinks are more likely to binge drink, themselves. Adults whose spouses stop smoking through a clinical intervention are themselves much more likely to stop smoking. These positive and negative impacts on health spread not through broad culture but through the “microcultures” of close social ties.

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Jan 5 2015
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'We Need People to be Incensed by the Health Inequality that Persists in This Country'

Felesia Bowen, PhD, PCPNP-BC, is an assistant professor at Rutgers University School of Nursing, and a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Nurse Faculty Scholar (2014-2017). Her research focuses on community-based pediatric asthma care.

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When I first began working as a pediatric nurse in New Jersey 20 years ago, I was committed to getting asthma care right. I worked hard to educate my young patients and their families about the disease, how to avoid the triggers that cause attacks, and how to use their medications. I wrote asthma action plans and prescribed the correct medications to control symptoms. 

Felesia Bowen

It wasn’t always enough. One Monday morning, one of my young patients experienced asthma symptoms. The family followed his asthma action plan, “stepping” his medications in an effort to relieve his asthma symptoms. On Tuesday, he wasn’t feeling better, and went to the nurse practitioner (NP) in his school’s health office, who appropriately modified his treatment plan and called the asthma specialist to get a next-day appointment for him.

She remembers the young man telling her that he really needed to feel better, because he was going to his middle school graduation dance Wednesday night. On Thursday morning, he visited the NP again, still with asthma symptoms. He told her that he had missed the appointment with the asthma specialist because his mom couldn’t make it—she had health issues of her own, and three other children to care for. But he’d gone to his dance and proudly showed her his middle school class ring.

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Jan 2 2015
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Improving Care Coordination for Children with Mental Health Conditions

Nicole M. Brown, MD, MPH, MHS, is a general pediatrician at Montefiore Medical Center and an assistant professor of pediatrics in the Division of General Pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University in New York City. She is alumna of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Clinical Scholars program.

Nicole Brown

Many patients have left an impression on my heart since I began my journey as a pediatrician, but one I cared for early in my career sticks with me. He was a wiry 8-year-old boy exhibiting symptoms of an anxiety and conduct disorder: He was very aggressive, had acted inappropriately with his younger sister, smeared feces around the house, and was difficult to manage. He had been severely and physically abused, and although child protective services had gotten involved, he had fallen out of the system after the case was “closed” and stopped showing up for therapy.

By the time his grandmother brought him to see me, I was the first doctor to see him in about two years. In the hour that I spent with him that day, it became clear that his treatment—or lack thereof—was inextricably bound up in his family’s various other challenges. His family lived in poverty, and faced food insecurity issues, in addition to a long, cyclical history of abuse and child protective services involvement. His grandmother was shuttling between various social service agencies, doing her best to complete forms and meet the requirements for public assistance. Yet despite her best efforts, she wasn’t really able to manage it all and, as a result, the boy’s health care was falling through the cracks.

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Dec 31 2014
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YOUR Top Ten Blog Posts of 2014

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Human Capital Blog published nearly 400 posts this year. As we usher in 2015, we take a look back at our ten most-read 2014 posts.

Why Do Deaths from Drugs Like Oxycodone Occur in Different Neighborhoods than Deaths from Heroin? This in-depth look at the role neighborhoods play in shaping substance abuse patterns was written by RWJF Health & Society Scholars program alumna Magdalena Cerdá, PhD, MPH. She compares neighborhoods that have more fatal overdoses of opiate-based painkillers to neighborhoods in which heroin and cocaine overdoses are more likely to occur, identifying characteristics of each. Her piece generated a larger audience than any other post published on this Blog this year, with more than 22,000 visits.

How Stress Makes Us Sick was written by RWJF Health & Society Scholar Keely Muscatell, PhD. A social neuroscientist and psychoneuroimmunologist, Muscatell shares her research into the physical manifestations of stress, its relationship to inflammation, and ways people may be able to reframe their responses to stress in order to alleviate the physical reactions it can cause. Understanding how stress makes us sick, she blogs, “is of extreme importance to the health and longevity of our nation.”

Misfortune at Birth, which drew the third-largest audience among the posts published on this Blog in 2014, asks whether some premature babies are simply born in the wrong place. It reports on nurse-led research that finds seven in ten black infants with very low birth weights have the misfortune of being born in hospitals with lower nurse staffing ratios and work environments than other hospitals. The blog post was written by Eileen Lake, PhD, RN, FAAN, and Jeannette Rogowski, PhD, based on their study funded by RWJF’s Interdisciplinary Nursing Quality Research Initiative.

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Dec 30 2014
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Depression Takes Toll on Spouses and Loved Ones, Too

Mieke Beth Thomeer, PhD, is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, and Debra Umberson, PhD, MSW, is a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and a 2011 recipient of a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Investigator Award in Health Policy Research. The authors received the 2014 American Sociological Association’s Best Publication Award from the mental health section for an article on marital dynamics and depression that was published in Society and Mental Health.

Mieke Thomeer Mieke Beth Thomeer

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in 10 Americans is experiencing depression at any given time.1 Depression is a frequent topic in the media: news reports highlight the toll it takes on the diagnosed person;2,3 celebrities publicly discuss their debilitating experiences with depression;4,5 and researchers investigate biological markers of and cures for depression.6,7

Umberson, Deb 2011 Debra Umberson

Overwhelmingly, depression is depicted as an individual-level problem, a burden and difficulty for the person with it. Little attention is given to what depression means for her or his loved ones, especially for spouses. Because depression is rarely experienced in isolation, we argue that it is important to ask:

  • What is the mental health impact of having a depressed spouse?
  • What factors lead to the spread of depression from one spouse to the other?
  • How can both spouses be supported during episodes of depression?

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Dec 29 2014
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Health Reform is Important, But Collaboration is Key

Brian D. Smedley, PhD, is executive director of the National Collaborative for Health Equity in Washington, D.C.

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Relative to national averages, many people of color have poorer health from the cradle to the grave—beginning at birth, with higher rates of low birth weight and infant mortality; through childhood and adolescence, with higher rates of asthma and unhealthy weight; into adulthood, with higher rates of chronic disease and disability; and at the end of life, with higher rates of premature death and shortened lifespans.  

Brian Smedley

Public health research shows that these health inequities are mostly attributable to factors beyond health care access and quality: As a result of residential segregation, people of color are more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods with a high concentration of health risks, and a relative paucity of health-enhancing resources. Highly-segregated communities of color are too often overrun with environmental health threats brought about by polluting industries, and vendors selling unhealthy products such as tobacco, alcohol, and high-fat, high-sugar, and/or high-sodium products.  At the same time, many of these same communities lack access to affordable, nutritious food; safe spaces for exercise, recreation, and play; and high-quality schools that prepare children well for the high levels of education that are often protective of health.

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Dec 26 2014
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Center of Gravity

For the 25th anniversary of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s (RWJF) Summer Medical and Dental Education Program (SMDEP), the Human Capital Blog is publishing scholar profiles, some reprinted from the program’s website. SMDEP is a six-week academic enrichment program that has created a pathway for more than 22,000 participants, opening the doors to life-changing opportunities. Following is a profile of Steve R. Martinez, MD, MAS, FACS, a member of the 1992 class.

Steve Martinez

Washington State has one of the highest rates of breast cancer in the country. Steve R. Martinez, an award-winning surgical oncologist at the Everett Clinic, wants to uncover why.

He zeros in on Snohomish County’s large population of rural poor. Disproportionately higher rates of breast cancer there elicit questions, underscoring the challenges of eliminating health disparities.

Is it radium exposure? Something in the groundwater? Scarcity of vitamin D-rich sunlight?

“Nobody knows—and without delving into it, we’ll never find out,” says Martinez, mindful of the complex factors driving disparities.

Solutions, he adds, require probing beyond race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.

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