Trusted sources: How a Duquesne University program builds on neighborhood relationships to improve health care

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Danielle Smith is a community health worker with the Bridges to Health, an initiative to improve resident access to healthcare. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Danielle Smith, a Hazelwood resident for the past five years, finds ways to help in her neighborhood, from handing out flyers on wellness events and job postings to informing residents about meal deliveries. 

“I've always been like, if somebody has an issue, I'm the one that wants to help them fix it,” said Smith, who’s now leveraging that spirit as a community health worker with Duquesne University’s Bridges to Health Program.

In that role, she hopes to connect residents with health assessments and help with housing and finances. If people don’t have a doctor or are unsure where to go, she wants people to know that there are people like her who are offering help.

Since the program launched last fall, Bridges to Health has been working with residents in Hazelwood and Clairton to offer more accessible health programs, especially as COVID-19 exacerbates health disparities. 

In January, Duquesne’s Center for Integrative Health received funding of $475,000 from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation* to expand services and hire community health workers who can use existing relationships to link services with residents of the Pittsburgh neighborhood and the City of Clairton, often talked about for its struggles with health and air quality.

Smith and her colleagues aim to provide preventive screenings and other health services directly to the communities, while responding to issues caused by chronic diseases and health disparities, said Paige Williams, the manager of community health initiatives at the center. 

“The community health workers really are the trusted sources. These are folks who most likely were already doing this work before this position came along,” Williams said. 

So far, the program has hired Smith and two other part-time community health workers, with a goal of adding more. 

The health workers are embedded in neighborhood organizations like Hazelwood’s Center of Life and have space for “office hours” to meet with residents, Williams said. A visiting resident could receive a health assessment, discuss underlying health conditions and get connected to resources for other concerns like access to food or housing.

“I just hope that we can reach more people and get more people to understand what it is and the help that we can provide,” Smith said. 

In her new role, Smith has held three wellness appointments and interacted with more residents at a recent event, she said in early April. The program has a goal of reaching everyone in the neighborhoods it serves.

The Bridges to Health program expands on the university center's efforts to work with community groups and organizations like the Housing Authority for the City of Pittsburgh to bring health services to residents and combat racial health inequities.

Bedford Dwellings Tenant Council President Gail Felton said before the university began health services there about five years ago, the center sent representatives to walk around the area and talk to residents one-on-one about the services they wanted and the schedules that worked best.

Jennifer Elliott, director of the Center for Integrative Health, met with students at an asthma screening in Hazelwood’s Propel School in 2018. (Courtesy photo)

Now residents don’t have to worry about leaving the neighborhood for some health services, Felton said. For example, residents were able to work with the university to have their medications delivered, a service especially needed by some older tenants. Services like that were used as a model for the Bridges to Health program to help promote health equity, wrote a university spokesman in an email.

“I think it’s a plus because we’ve never had a store or a pharmacy that was close that we could walk to — you had to get on the bus,” Felton said.

Last year, another initiative at the university’s center helped reach residents through a socially distanced movie night arranged by the housing authority. Along with the movie, residents could stop by a health tent and talk to pharmacists and other volunteers about their health. Residents could also get vaccines for the flu or shingles.

“Residents kind of felt like there was a comfort level, and it was a trust factor and Duquesne showed up, and they kept coming back,” housing authority spokeswoman Michelle Sandidge said.

Before the center’s health programs pivoted to address COVID-19 by helping to increase availability of testing and reinforcing the importance of masks, it connected residents to services like cardiovascular disease screenings and an asthma clinic, started in 2014. Ailments like diabetes and cardiovascular disease disproportionately impact communities of color, making services even more important during the pandemic.

Jennifer Elliott, director of the Center for Integrative Health, said the Hazelwood presence of Bridges to Health was shaped to help respond to health concerns like cardiovascular disease, mental health and substance abuse outlined as part of a bigger neighborhood plan. Each community is different, she said, and should be treated as such. 

“[We] really meet residents where they are, so that everybody has an equitable chance to be healthy,” Elliot said.

The efforts to build trust in recent years have been particularly helpful during the pandemic.

“Now if you can imagine where we are in the pandemic world and folks are feeling squeamish about getting the COVID-19 vaccine, but here's a group of people who gave you a shingles shot, pneumonia shot, flu shots and are talking to you on a daily basis or whatever, as it relates to their health,” Sandidge said.

Tiffany Hatcher, a professor at Duquesne's School of Pharmacy. (Courtesy photo)

Tiffany Hatcher, a professor at Duquesne’s School of Pharmacy, joined Bridges to Health to help underserved communities. In her view, success depends on the strength of relationships.

“You have to demonstrate a commitment to the community,” Hatcher said. “You have to be dedicated long term.”

In a Facebook Live video session, Hatcher walked residents through the development of the COVID-19 vaccine, how it was approved and what some side effects could be for people who receive it. 

Hatcher said she realizes there is a sense of distrust from Black communities in the medical establishment. Her father is from Selma, the site of brutal racism during the Civil Rights Movement, and her grandmother lived 30 minutes from the Tuskegee Institute, where researchers conducted unethical experiments on Black men.

The ‘Ask a Pharmacist’ event gave Hatcher the opportunity to answer any questions and, most importantly, build connections that can save lives.

“A lot of individuals will not be willing to listen to you until they trust you, or they can trust what you're going to say or believe that you have good intent,” she said. “That's the overarching theme with these programs…we're not doing a one-stop shop community service project.” 

PublicSource receives funding from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation.

Naomi Harris covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at naomi@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Punya Bhasin.

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