Creighton collaborating to build healthy communities
Though the striking new buildings transforming Creighton’s campus earn frequent notice, and though the University’s exciting sports programs build name recognition across the United States, another aspect of life at Creighton exerts a quiet but transformational influence on the lives of ordinary people.
An expansive understanding of what constitutes “community health” is guiding the University’s outreach into underserved communities. This effort encompasses traditional healthcare education along with teaching financial literacy; pursues juvenile justice, healthy eating, diabetes education, classes and video presentations about mental health; offers guidance for African American seniors navigating confusing healthcare systems; and connects people to health resources in the Omaha community, which includes Creighton’s own low-cost or free community clinics.
This tradition of community service exists also in Phoenix, where Creighton has long maintained educational partnerships with healthcare institutions and in 2021 opened its own newly built health sciences campus. Community involvement is woven into its educational curriculum.
Among the agencies and organizations benefiting from the involvement of Creighton’s Phoenix-based health sciences students who gain experience on the way to graduation, are: the St. Vincent de Paul Society, a partnership made possible by a $10 million, 2021 investment from the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust that aims to increase access to healthcare for uninsured patients; First Place, which provides housing for adults with autism and Down syndrome; Gigi’s Playhouse, a community center for people with Down syndrome; Huger Mercy, an assisted living center for people with dementia; Ability 360, which provides personal care attendants for people of all ages with disabilities; and the Special Olympics.
In Omaha and its surrounding areas, Creighton’s community health outreach is well established and continues to grow — stretching out through a network of partnerships, including those with schools and nonprofit organizations, connecting students and faculty with those in need of care.
Creighton at Highlander Serving the Underserved
In the heart of historic North Omaha, at the Highlander building, an integral part of the Seventy Five North housing complex, Creighton leases approximately 4,000 square feet of space, where, together with such community icons as the Charles Drew Health Center and Metropolitan Community College, it carries healthcare knowledge from Creighton’s campus to the doorsteps of ordinary people.
“It’s consistent with this broader idea that health is not just administering medications but also about the social and economic conditions that impact health,” says LaShaune Johnson, PhD, associate professor of public health at Creighton and director of Creighton University at Highlander.
“That’s why we were so excited last year when we started partnering with the Creighton School of Law, because we know that people need help to engage with our social systems so they can remake their lives. If they don’t, their health will probably be impacted.”
Creighton’s Highlander-based activities touch many challenges facing underserved communities.
“A keystone program is helping people complete their high school diploma, because education is tightly linked to healthcare outcomes,” Johnson says.
Guided by John Gallion Jr., MS’15, director of Creighton’s Educational Opportunity Center, the program offers adult basic education courses and college enrollment assistance.
“Then, we had a grant from the National Network of Libraries of Medicine to educate African Americans about mental health,” Johnson says.
Co-investigated by Kathryn Onorato, MS’15, EdD’22, program manager for Creighton’s Center for Interprofessional Practice, Education and Research (CIPER), and Elizabeth Kiscaden, University librarian, the grant funded the “Sick and Tired” project.
“We partnered with providers of color in Omaha and other cities to do videos and presentations about mental health, both online and physically for people who couldn’t access Zoom,” Johnson says. “We know communities that experience digital disparities also experience health disparities.”
Julie Kalkowski, executive director of the Financial Hope Collaborative at the Heider College of Business, reduces financial stress for families in the Omaha area through financial education and coaching. By focusing on monthly cash flow management, participants begin to feel in control of their finances and move toward financial stability and away from late fees, shut-off notices and overdraft fees.
Such knowledge might not seem especially related to healthcare, but Kalkowski begs to differ. A clinical trial on the Financial Hope Collaborative’s model, she says, found reductions in smoking and fast-food consumption along with increases in income, promotions and school attendance.
“In America, the higher your income, the better your health, and the lower your income, the worse your health,” Kalkowski says. “For example, the life expectancy in the 68111 ZIP code is 60 years compared to 80 for people in the 68132 ZIP code.
“Less than five miles separates North Omaha in 68111 and the Dundee/Fairacres area in 68132. That might be Exhibit A for highlighting health disparities in Omaha.”
Like Johnson, Kalkowski pursues her mission from the Highlander building, and she does it with an empathy born of repeated exposure to the financial storms endured by single mothers and struggling families.
“People work very hard, but they’re still not making it,” she says. “They just don’t have time to create a realistic budget when they are working two jobs and trying to raise their kids. It’s a lot of stress for people earning low wages. Meal planning, or starting an exercise program, is not top of mind when you are worried about a shut-off notice.”
Still, health should be monitored.
Training Volunteer Community Health Workers
That’s where Sade Kosoko-Lasaki, MD, MBA’05, comes in. As associate vice provost at Creighton, professor of ophthalmology, preventive medicine and public health at the School of Medicine and director of the Department of Health Sciences-Multicultural and Community Affairs (HS-MACA), Kosoko-Lasaki plays many roles, none more vigorously than leading HS-MACA’s community outreach activities from Creighton’s Hixson-Lied Science Building.
Since 2000, when she created HS-MACA, Kosoko-Lasaki has drummed up grant money to fund a wide range of outreach activities. The latest of these is a $3 million federal grant to train 240 volunteer community health workers.
“Many people have questions about healthcare, about where to go and whom to see,” Kosoko-Lasaki says. “These community health workers live right there in the neighborhoods, trusted neighbors who can answer questions about accessing healthcare services, who understand healthcare needs and can promote individual wellness from chronic diseases that are highly prevalent in minority communities.”
This latest HS-MACA outreach builds on a long history of working with youth and young adults, which has seen the department since its 2000 creation impact the lives of more than 15,000 students through pipeline programs that, beginning in the fourth grade, guide them toward a college education. The department also operates a Mini Health Science School, which similarly guides local children toward a health sciences professional education.
HS-MACA is not alone in focusing on children. The University’s new Mini Medical School, operating in Omaha and Phoenix, along with academic service-learning work led by Vicki Bautista, EdD’18, are important components of Creighton’s juvenile outreach.
Mini Medical School, a program of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion in the School of Medicine, works with underrepresented fourth- through 12th-grade students whose parents never graduated from college. A variety of interactive activities stimulate interest in medicine and health as these youth learn what it takes to apply to medical school.
Bautista, who teaches in the Master of Integrative Health and Wellness program in the Department of Family and Community Medicine in the medical school, leads another outreach effort.
Having previously taught tobacco cessation to high school students and then managing health and wellness programming at Offutt Air Force Base, Bautista now partners with FitGirl Inc. to empower girls and young women to build healthy lifestyles by engaging in outdoor, multisport activities.
“I really believe in the mission of that organization, which is to empower young girls between the ages of 8 and 16 to think of health and wellness more holistically,” Bautista says. “Right now, some of the girls are training with the Creighton rowing team with the goal of participating in a 5K challenge.”
The collaboration works for everyone, she says.
“Most nonprofits don’t have enough personnel, so if my students can help, and they also get some real-world experience, then it’s a win-win for everybody.”
Back at the Highlander, Creighton is harnessing the power of healthy foods and nutrition education to help improve health outcomes. Tom Lenz, BA’92, PharmD’99, MA’17, professor of family and community medicine, partners with the Charles Drew Health Center and Whispering Roots, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing nutrition education to urban communities.
“Food pharmacies,” as they are popularly known, began appearing across the country some five to 10 years ago, Lenz says, with the goal of providing healthy food and education to those experiencing significant economic hardship who have been diagnosed with a chronic disease such as diabetes.
Creighton’s program, “The Enrichment Co-op,” began in 2019.
“We provide education on basic nutrition and healthy eating, especially related to diabetes, and provide healthy recipes that can help manage blood sugar levels,” Lenz says.
Providing healthcare for the excluded has always been part of Creighton’s mission. From bustling campus clinics — such as those at the School of Dentistry, where low-cost dentistry has been provided since 1905 — to a number of community clinics and partnerships — such as the student-run Magis Clinic, located at the Siena Francis House, Nebraska’s largest provider of services to individuals experiencing homelessness — serving the healthcare needs of the community, while educating the next generation of compassionate healthcare professionals, is in Creighton’s DNA.
As the future beckons, Creighton is planning.
Planning for the Future: Population Health Initiatives
Scott Shipman, MD, who since Sept. 1, 2022, has held Creighton’s CyncHealth Endowed Chair for Population Health, is charged with establishing a University-wide focus in population health. This work will center on implementation, research and evaluation, and training for innovations in clinical practice that support high-value care, alongside community-engaged population health initiatives.
Formerly the national director of clinical innovations and the physician lead for primary care and workforce initiatives for the Association of American Medical Colleges, Shipman will work with leaders of Creighton’s health sciences programs in Omaha and Phoenix, as well as the University’s other colleges, in a joint effort to build a Population Health Institute.
“Creighton has a long history of outstanding work by individuals committed to serving the health and well-being of the community,” Shipman says. “Every school at Creighton has much to offer to positively impact population health, at the level of the health system, the community, the state and beyond.
“Population health is a team sport, requiring the alignment of diverse perspectives and expertise to improve equity in health and healthcare. There is a great opportunity to make population health an embodiment of Creighton’s social justice mission.”
A major element of this endeavor will be a partnership between Creighton and CHI Health, as well as CyncHealth’s Nebraska Healthcare Collaborative, to establish research, policy and practical expertise for evaluating the impact and return on investment of population health interventions.
All of this, from exposing youths in underserved communities to possible careers in healthcare, helping people understand their legal rights or complete a high school education, and helping underserved communities better navigate the maze of healthcare services, reflects a historic calling.
“It all really connects to Creighton’s mission and its Jesuit values,” says Bautista, “which is to support the community. It’s in our heart to do that.”