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How Supportive Housing Uplifts Families in Crisis

Oct 15, 2018, 11:00 AM, Posted by Kerry Anne McGeary

Irma’s troubled life culminated in being thrown down the stairs when she was six months pregnant. Thanks to a program that’s addressing system-wide change, Irma and her family are now safe and secure with a new home and a brighter future. 

Supportive Housing program case worker, Melissa Rowe (right) with her client Irma and three of Irma's four children. Supportive Housing program case worker, Melissa Rowe (in white shirt) with her client Irma and three of Irma's four children: Joel, age 5, Delicia, age 3 and Julio, age 18 months.

Editor’s Note: Although foster care placement is sometimes necessary to ensure the safety and well-being of children, research indicates that keeping families together is generally a better for children, parents, and the community. Working with the Corporation for Supportive Housing, RWJF launched Keeping Families Together in 2007. The program helps vulnerable families like Irma’s grow stronger, safer and healthier so that children—and their parents—might thrive. We are resurfacing this post in time for Children’s Health Month.

From too early an age, Irma faced a seemingly endless series of traumatic events that life threw at her as best she could—on her own.

But after a domestic crisis left her hospitalized, homeless, jobless, and in danger of losing her infant son, Irma finally received help from a supportive housing program that changed her life.

Keeping Families Together (KFT)—the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF)-supported model for the program that helped Irma turn her life around—has become my own personal touchstone for what building a Culture of Health should look like in the real world.

Irma’s story illustrates both the power of this model and the inner resilience that so many struggling families possess.

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How Collaboration Fosters Safer Communities for Kids

Oct 3, 2018, 11:00 AM, Posted by Martha Davis

Collaborative approaches can help ensure kids grow up with a solid foundation of safety and with a support system for those who are affected by violence.

Graphic depicting child playing with blocks

As the executive director of Philadelphia Physicians for Social Responsibility in the late 1990s, I worked closely with the local police department, the Women’s Law Project, and the district attorney. At the time, these forward-thinking professionals were frustrated. They were arresting the second and third generation of families involved in the criminal justice system. I knew some of these same individuals, and their histories as survivors of childhood trauma.

We were witnessing the downstream effects of unaddressed trauma in early childhood. Children who grew up traumatized landed in the juvenile justice system first and eventually within the criminal justice system as adults.

As a result, we knew we needed to find ways of building communities that would better support young children. Could we invest more upstream, in early childhood education, for example, and in doing so help prevent violence in our communities in the long-term?

Thanks to innovators like these and reams of new research on how early trauma and later violence affect individuals over a life course, we now understand that community conditions that impede children’s healthy development can impact everyone’s safety down the line.

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New Data Provides a Deeper Understanding of Life Expectancy Gaps

Sep 10, 2018, 3:00 PM, Posted by Donald F. Schwarz

The more local the data, the more useful it is for pinpointing disparities and driving action. The first universal measure of health at a neighborhood level reveals gaps that may previously have gone unnoticed.

A father rides with his young daughter on a pink scooter.

When Dr. Rex Archer returned to his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri, to lead its health department in 1998, he was shocked by the city’s inequities. Life expectancy for white residents was 6.5 years longer than that of black residents. Gathering more data, he estimated that about half of the city’s annual deaths could be attributed to conditions in neighborhoods like segregation, poverty, violence, and a lack of education.

I also confronted stark disparities by neighborhood in my years as Philadelphia’s health commissioner, as does most every health commissioner/director across the country. It is truly unsettling to see how small differences in geography yield vast differences in health and longevity. In some places, access to healthy food, stable jobs, housing that is safe and affordable, quality education, and smoke-free environments are plentiful. In others, they are severely limited. Data can help us better understand the health disparities across our communities and provide a clearer picture of the biggest health challenges and opportunities we experience.

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How Will Technology Influence Community Health? Help Us Learn More

Sep 5, 2018, 10:00 AM, Posted by Trene Hawkins

A $2.4 million funding opportunity will examine how technology’s impact on infrastructure in the near future can improve health equity in the United States.

Street car stop in New Orleans.

Louisville, Ky., has one of the highest asthma rates in the United States. To better understand this problem, community leaders blanketed the city with air quality sensors and equipped more than 1,000 asthma sufferers with GPS-enabled inhalers. They also downloaded traffic data from Waze, pulled in local weather information, and used manually-collected data on city vegetation.

Together, this data revealed that people used their inhalers most on days with high temperatures and high air pollution, and in areas with heavy traffic and few trees. Using this information, local leaders are now taking steps to increase the tree canopy and reroute trucks in neighborhoods where asthma is most severe. They are also exploring changes to city-wide zoning policies to improve overall health.

What happened in Louisville isn’t just a story of effective community engagement or savvy data analysis. It is an example of how technology can be used to shape our communities for the good—and with major implications for health.

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Can Capturing More Detailed Data Advance Health Equity?

Aug 30, 2018, 1:00 PM, Posted by Tina Kauh

How we measure America’s rapidly expanding diversity has critical implications for the nation’s health. A new PolicyLink report offers recommendations for improving how we collect and report data about racial and ethnic subgroups.

Does the kind of data we collect and report ensure everyone has a fair and just opportunity to live their healthiest life possible?

As the country grows more ethnically and racially diverse, there is a growing debate among health researchers about the value of breaking down data in more refined ways. The argument is that simply looking at health outcomes through the lens of broad racial or ethnic categories (e.g., black people or Asian Americans) doesn’t paint an accurate enough picture of health and well-being. It masks what’s happening within subgroups and glosses over the nuanced experiences that greatly influence outcomes in these populations.

Recently, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) partnered with PolicyLink to identify the needs and gaps in how ethnic and racial data are collected, analyzed, and reported for each of the major aggregated ethnic and racial groups.

Chinatown Y Community Meeting

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Community Resilience in the Eye of a Storm

Aug 20, 2018, 1:00 PM, Posted by Paul Kuehnert

When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in 2017, officials from Harris County Public Health had to get creative. Here’s how they kept Houstonians healthy in the wake of the storm and what they learned in the process.

Graphic of boots.

One year ago, in August 2017, Hurricane Harvey made landfall and then refused to leave. Hovering over Harris County, Texas—home to Houston—it dumped 1 trillion gallons of water, the equivalent of 40 million swimming pools, on the county’s 1,778 square miles. One community saw 10 inches of rain in 90 minutes. Drainage systems—all systems for that matter—failed or were disrupted in unfathomable ways. Water was as high as streetlights in some places. Potentially poisonous chemicals and dangerous bacteria surged through residential areas. People were trapped by flooded roads. Homes and lives were destroyed.

Those 10 days—from August 25 when the storm made landfall until September 4 when the sun finally returned—were some of the most challenging of Umair A. Shah’s career. Umair A. Shah, MD, MPH, is a physician, an emergency responder, and most importantly the executive director of Harris County Public Health (HCPH). HCPH is the county health department for the 3rd largest county in the nation serving 4.7 million people. He and his staff were in rapid response mode leading up to the storm, during the storm itself, and for several weeks in the recovery phase of the storm, often operating 24/7.

During a visit to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), I had the pleasure of discussing Harris County’s response with Dr. Shah. “My staff came every day to do their jobs,” he told me, “while they too wondered about their own homes or how their family members were faring. I am so amazed by their absolute dedication to the needs of our community despite it all.” Dr. Shah himself drove 2,200 miles in 10 days visiting neighborhoods that were heavily impacted from the storm.

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A Journey From Philanthropy to Public Health and Back Again

Aug 15, 2018, 11:45 AM, Posted by Joe Marx

Brian Castrucci traces his path to CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation back to a “life-changing” internship at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

A sign in a community park.

Many of us have had those moments in life where the decisions we make alter the path our lives take. Brian Castrucci, the newly appointed CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation, had one of those pivotal moments back when he had completed his first year of graduate study in public health.

At 24 years of age, Brian had a decision to make: return to school to complete his master’s degree in public health or accept a one-year internship at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). He chose RWJF, and, he says, “it’s made all the difference.”

“What would I have missed if I hadn’t done that internship?” Brian told me in a recent conversation. “Simple. How to think. How to dream. How to boldly take on a change that is needed even when you know it’s going to be really hard.”

He considers that year the base for much of his early career success. Not only did he learn to think strategically and tackle big problems, like youth tobacco and substance use, but he saw models of partnership, collaboration, and how people at the top of their game work together to advance the field and change lives. “I had a chance to interact with, and learn from, leaders who I had read about in class. It was like a public health fantasy camp.”

And then, just as he was considering a career in philanthropy, he was encouraged to walk through another door. As his internship was ending, Brian told RWJF Senior Scientist Tracy Orleans, one of his mentors, that he was interested in staying on at RWJF. She wisely noted that wasn’t the best idea for a young person with a spark of public health passion. If he was to be truly effective in philanthropy, she told him, he needed time in the trenches.

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To Improve Health Disparities, Focus on Oral Health

Aug 9, 2018, 3:00 PM, Posted by Charles Moore

A team from our Clinical Scholars program believes that addressing oral health disparities can improve overall health and well-being, and help end cycles of poverty. They are bringing oral health to the community through school clinics, an app and an oral health protocol development for nurses, physicians, dentists and dental hygienists.

HEALing Community Center Atlanta

In January 2018, the Hollis Innovation Academy, a K-8 school, opened a dental exam room. Though it may seem unusual to see a dentist’s chair in a school, its presence reflects years of learning within this Atlanta community. Hollis's students live in English Avenue/Vine City, an area with one of the highest poverty rates in Atlanta. They also reside in one of three zip codes with the highest oral cancer rates in the city.

Early in my career as an ear, nose and throat specialist, I witnessed a deeply troubling pattern: on my first visit with a patient, I would diagnose him or her with advanced head and neck cancers. There would have been good treatment options if these patients had been seen much earlier. But time and time again, all we could do was rush the patient into an operating room, put in a tracheotomy to control the airway, and set up end-of-life care. I kept thinking that someone needed to get to this issue much sooner so that people wouldn’t die from something that could be treated effectively if caught sooner.

Eventually, I decided that person was me.

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Four Ways to Build Inclusive, Healthy Places for All

Jul 25, 2018, 11:00 AM, Posted by Sharon Roerty

Inclusive public spaces for all are a central part of healthy, resilient communities. A new framework can help ensure that processes for shaping these spaces lead to design decisions that promote equity.

Healthy Places Swing Set

It has been said that inspiration comes when you least expect it. My visit to Melbourne, Australia, inspired me to take an international look at place-making. I was standing in Federation Square, restlessly waiting for my daughter to finish her shift. I hadn’t seen her in nearly a year. I was wearing my mom hat, not my urban planner’s hat.

Nevertheless, as my eyes swept the Square, I had the sense of being in a very special place. And while I didn’t know it at the time, I was not surprised to later learn that Federation Square in the heart of Melbourne has been recognized as one of the best public squares in the world. Fed Square, built on top of a working railway, comprises sculpted and natural elements; it has small spaces like fire pits; and large and medium-size open spaces for planned and unplanned activity. There is a large TV screen that broadcasts international and national sporting events (it is not always on). The Square is open 24 hours a day; has free Wi-Fi for all; rest rooms; and no signs prohibiting activity or lingering. Restaurants open their doors to it; and transit lines and shops surround it.

I visited Fed Square daily for eight days, and what impressed me was how well it reflected Melbourne’s rich cultural diversity; how seamlessly it connected to the streets, buildings and facilities on its periphery; and how welcoming it always felt. It is a place for people—the well-heeled, the not-so lucky—and everyone in between. I should note, though, that Federation Square’s value as an open public space and cultural hub is currently being tested. Controversial changes to it are pushing forward sans public review and participation.

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Why We Must Turn Up the Heat on Tobacco Products

Jul 12, 2018, 2:00 PM, Posted by Matt Pierce

We’ve come a long way in reducing tobacco use, but we can save millions of lives and advance health equity by doing even more.

A discount tobacco and alcohol store in Nashville, TN.

Although smoking rates have dropped by more than half over the past 50-plus years, tobacco use remains the number one cause of preventable deaths in the United States.

And not everyone has benefited equally from reduced rates in smoking—there are deep disparities in tobacco use and quit rates, depending on where people live, how much money they make, and the color of their skin.

Tobacco products disproportionately harm people with lower incomes and less education; people with mental illness and substance use disorders; people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender (LGBT); and racial and ethnic minorities.

What’s causing these inequities? Part of it is marketing. Tobacco control efforts have not focused on closing racial, ethnic and socio-economic gaps. In fact, we know that the tobacco industry targets certain populationswomen, people who are black or Latino, and members of the LGBT community—with higher levels of marketing, exposing them to more tobacco product ads.

In addition, people in many of these groups are less likely to have health insurance—and, as a result, less likely to have access to smoking cessation products and services.

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