The NACHC Community Health Institute and Expo in Chicago has officially opened and it’s the usual swirl of events and inspiring speakers. During the General Session NACHC Board Chair J. Ricardo Guzman underscored the accomplishments of health centers in responding to emerging public health issues, saying, “Whether it is Zika, opioids, floods, fires or contaminated water systems, these are community health problems that demand a long-term integrated community response. And, as frontline responders, we have a vital role in meeting these crises.” Guzman also described the work of health centers in reaching beyond the walls of the exam room to address the social determinants of health, and expressed hope that health centers should be viewed as an asset to be “preserved and expanded.” Indeed, there is now a call underway for health centers to serve 50 million people by the year 2026, and the key question being asked at the gathering is: do health centers have the workforce, the technology, and the resources to be ready and tackle population health?
Karen DeSalvo, Acting Assistant Secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services, focused on the topic of population health in her remarks, noting the work that health centers are already doing in building healthy communities and addressing the social determinants of health (these two tasks go hand in hand in the health center world). Asserting that “health is more than health care,” DeSalvo also described research in health outcomes that has found that “Social determinants like your zip code determine your health far more than your DNA. The richest Americans outlive the poorest by 10 to 15 years. For the poorest Americans this gap in life expectancy can be wider or narrower depending on where they live.” DeSalvo went on to talk about the importance of achieving “health equity” in our system and that health centers continue to partner with local and public health entities to optimize health for all.
Former Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, who practiced medicine at a health center, also reminded us about what patients need beyond clinical care. “I learned my patients had problems that my prescription pad wasn’t enough to solve, problems such as housing, or nutrition.” Dr. Benjamin also shared a story about a patient who sought her help for severe back pain due to a slipped disc. Dr. Benjamin prescribed pain medicine but when the patient returned to her office — in such pain that she was unable to sit — she learned the patient had not picked up the medicine because she could not afford the co-pay. She was waiting until she received her paycheck in a few days. Dr. Benjamin sent a nurse to pick up the prescription and when she handed the medicine to the patient her eyes welled up with tears of embarrassment. “I realized then that I had taken away her dignity.” Benjamin added that this was an important lesson.
“Cultural compentancy has nothing to do with the color of your skin, it has to do with allowing a patient to maintain their dignity,” she told the audience.
Aside from the General Sessions, there have also been a host of cutting edge education sessions that deal directly with the frontline work health centers are doing now — addressing the Zika virus, opioid addiction, and caring for victims of human trafficking. These sessions demonstrate that even though the world around us seems more complicated and perilous than ever, there is a vigilant safety net ready to respond.
The future remains a centerpiece topic for this conference, yet there was also a nod to the past. NACHC Board Chair-Elect Jim Luisi reflected on the recent loss of health center leaders Wilford Payne, Elizabeth Swain, and Merle Cunningham, all of whom helped blaze new trails in the early days of the Community Health Center Movement.
Stay tuned while we keep you posted on developments at the NACHC CHI.