Reaping the Rewards of the Culture of Health Prize

Aug 10, 2015, 3:25 PM, Posted by

It's been a year since Brownsville, Texas, won the Culture of Health Prize for its engagement of leaders across sectors to improve local health outcomes. Here's what the community has been up to since.

Brownsville, TX 2014 Culture of Health Prize Winner

Brownsville, Texas, had plenty to celebrate when it became one of six communities to win the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Culture of Health Prize in June 2014. This predominantly Hispanic city along the U.S.-Mexico border is one of the poorest in the country. Seven in 10 residents are uninsured, 8 in 10 are overweight or obese, and 1 in 3 has diabetes. Yet the community’s efforts to improve health—including new bike trails, community gardens, and a successful bilingual public health education campaign—have earned it wide respect and national recognition, along with $25,000 that goes with the RWJF Culture of Health Prize.

City officials are still discussing how to use the prize money. One option is commissioning a piece of artwork that could be moved around to highlight various initiatives, such as the periodic CycloBia events that make some of the city’s streets car-free for a day so that residents can bike, run, or engage in other physical activity.

Yet the money’s significance pales in comparison to all else that has happened since Brownsville won the Prize. The award “has given us great visibility,” says Rose Zavaletta Gowen, a physician and Brownsville city commissioner who has led many of the municipality’s health improvement efforts. “We were working on our own, almost incognito, before, but winning the Prize has pushed us out into the open.” Consider what has happened since:

  • Surveys of city residents have shown progress in boosting physical activity; for example, 45 percent of those who attended at least one CycloBia event reported that they got more activity each week afterward. Partly as a result, the local Valley Baptist Legacy Foundation stepped in with $100,000 to help build a broader network of trails to encourage biking and bicycle tourism in surrounding Cameron County and 10 other area cities.
  • A team led by Kathleen Schmeler, MD, from Houston-based M.D. Anderson, along with Belinda Reininger and other colleagues from the University of Texas School of Public Health regional campus in Brownsville, tackled the area’s high cervical cancer rates in women. Promotoras, or community health workers, have been trained to recruit local women for cancer screening; the goal is to boost the number screened by 4,000, or 30 percent, over the next several years. Local Brownsville health care providers have been schooled in providing needed follow up care. Schmeler and her colleagues in Houston tele-mentor them weekly under the auspices of Project ECHO, a former Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grantee.
  • A Rice University engineering professor, Rebecca Richards-Kortum, has engaged her students to develop tools that can help provide health care in Brownsville and other low-resource places in the U.S. One team will work on an inexpensive point-of-care blood sugar test for diabetes that can be used in a home or clinic; another on developing low-cost manikins, or models of the human body, to help train providers to care for the foot ulcers experienced by many diabetes patients.
  • One of the area’s largest foundations, Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas, took note of Brownsville’s prize-winning performance, and engaged key city leaders including Gowen in a broad collective impact initiative to address diabetes in four local counties. The target is to decrease the region’s prevalence of type 2 diabetes—double or triple the national average—by ten percent as of 2030. What’s more, through Methodist’s initiative, Brownsville is also slated to receive monies from the federal Social Innovation Fund to train promotoras and other local care providers to help diabetes patients with the mental and behavioral health issues many experience, including depression.

Those spearheading these new efforts say that Brownsville’s success in winning the RWJF Culture of Health Prize focused their attention on the unique local capacity to improve health. They say the critical engagement of city leaders like Gowen—and the cross-sector collaboration among areas such as health care, education, and business—are a major force multiplier in a region where other resources are scarce.

“It will forever be in their favor that they were recognized,” says Patricia Mejia, director of community engagement at Methodist Healthcare Ministries. “They are teaching us many things about creating a Culture of Health. They are one bright spot in a very tough location of the U.S. And they are able to say, if it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.”  


A First Friday Google+Hangout on the RWJF Culture of Health Prize took place on Friday, August 7. Winners of the 2015 Prize will be announced on October 28, 2015.
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Susan Dentzer, Senior Policy Adviser at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, former Health Affairs Editor-in-Chief and Health Policy Analyst, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, is one of the nation's most respected health and health policy thought leaders and journalistsRead more of Susan’s posts.