Improving West Side residents’ health requires all community members to work together, several experts said at a town hall on race and equity held last month and organized by Wellness West.
Formerly known as West Side Health Equity Collaborative, Wellness West serves West Side neighborhoods spanning 10 different ZIP codes that include Austin, Garfield Park, Humboldt Park and Belmont Cragin and is a coalition of more than 40 health organizations of health care and social services providers.
“The reality is that racial disparities are very much prevalent in all aspects of our health care system, from coverage and access to treatment and disparate health outcomes,” Congresswoman-elect Delia Ramirez (3rd) said at the start of the town hall.
“A baby born in the Loop is likely to live to be 82 years old, but in West Garfield Park, their life expectancy is just 70 years,” said Misty Drake, Wellness West’s co-executive director.
Six health professionals –including experts in public health, medicine, health research and community health – participated in the town hall to discuss challenges and opportunities for equal healthcare on Chicago’s West Side.
Each panelist mentioned how their practice area can increase equity in the access to healthcare and the quality of healthcare services available on the West Side.
Kimberly McCullough-Starks, deputy director of community outreach for the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, said public policies have a significant impact on healthcare. She noted that the state agency invests $150 million every year in local healthcare coalitions addressing health disparities in Illinois.
Wellness West is one of the first local healthcare coalitions to be funded by this program, known as Healthcare Transformation Collaboratives.
McCullough-Starks said the program does not fund institutions, instead it “funds collaborations” to ensure more community-based organizations who “have relationships with the patients that are being served” are involved in the delivery of healthcare services.
Kim Jay, community health worker for Sinai Urban Health Institute, reiterated the importance of community health workers. She said as a community health worker, she is the “eyes and ears” of the doctors and nurses outside the hospital’s four walls, so she cann help patients navigate their health.
One attendee shared her experience and questioned why Black and Brown patients receive lower quality of healthcare services; she said her mother was hospitalized and died due to negligence. “How do we improve the culture for Black and Brown patients to get the same level of caring that non-minorities receive?” she asked. “What do we do?”
Other attendees agreed and shared they have also experienced different treatment or discrimination in the healthcare system.
Dr. Aida Luz Maisonet Giachello, a research professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, said given cultural and educational shifts, there is a need for more African American and Latino professionals in the medical and healthcare fields.
She agreed there are systemic biases in the healthcare system that need to be changed so that minorities receive the same quality of healthcare.
Dr. Art Jones, chief medical officer for Medical Home Network, said Wellness West is building a training program that will train residents to become certified community health workers.
Maisonet Giachello also urged residents to vote in local elections because elected officials have power on public health decisions.
Dr. Jairo Mejia, chief medical officer for Access Community Health Network, which serves around 185,000 Illinois patients every year, urged action.
“We know the data, the evidence is there, we know about health inequity,” Mejia said. “It’s time to act. Less talk and more action.”
For more information about Wellness West programs and network of healthcare and social services providers, visit their website.