For years, the state has recognized the public’s health is not the result of a single factor, but many that include housing, education and more, Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources John Littel told the crowd Wednesday morning.
The group of health and community workers and volunteers gathered at Brooks Crossing Innovation Center and Opportunity Center in Newport News for the announcement of a partnership meant to address those causes of health problems.
Riverside Health System and the Urban League of Hampton Roads have joined together to tackle racial health disparities and connect people with resources and treatments to help prevent extreme health conditions.
“We are grateful for this partnership and an opportunity to have more resources to impact our mission,” said Gil Bland, president and CEO of Urban League of Hampton Roads.
The Urban League of Hampton Roads was established in 1978, while the larger Urban League, a civil rights organization traces its history back to 1910, according to Bland. There are four pillars the group focuses on — housing, education, workforce and health, he said.
This makes the organization “tailor-made” to help Riverside Health, Littel said.
Bill Downey, CEO of Riverside Health, said the organization has sought to reach out to communities where the public is underserved such as in the Isle of Wight County, where the system is building a hospital, and is trying to expand its outreach to communities closer to Hampton Roads.
“We’ve tried to do that, but we can do a better job and we will do a better job with that,” Downey said.
Clinical care makes up a fraction of one’s health, as other factors including food security and housing make up most of the conditions that determine a healthy lifestyle.
The partnership brings with it three new programs, according to Riverside Health and Urban League of Hampton Roads documents.
Project Ready is a high school career and college program, the Riverside Diverse Workforce is a series of year-round initiatives meant to engage through professional and educational engagement and support, and the pilot program called Food as Medicine where underserved residents who have health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease will be provided with healthy foods they are not able to obtain.
Hampton Roads is home to the nation’s 14th largest population of African Americans, according to Bland.
“With a cohort of that size comes wonderful opportunities of a diverse community, but also offers a great deal of challenges,” he said. “And in particular the health care community talks about this umbrella of social determinants of health.”
The Virginia Department of Health tracks the social determinants of health, including housing, transportation, employment and other factors.
“Sadly, when it comes to health disparities among Black Virginians, the numbers are pretty bad,” Littel said.
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After the event, Littel said partnerships such as the one between a community organization like the local Urban League, and a health provider like Riverside are a growing trend.
“I think it’s part of it is a reflection that doctors can only do so much,” he said.
The pandemic illustrated these issues, especially in how outreach could be improved, according to Littel. For example, state health officials realized reaching out with the clinical perspective wasn’t always the most effective.
“So thinking about how you bring in trusted voices who are often community groups, pastors, who can help people understand or get over what their hesitancy is.”
Bland said health literacy is key to empowering residents to take more control of the decisions about their health.
“It’s certainly missing and in the absence of health literacy, you have fear,” Bland said. “Some from historical, factual inequities; some from the unknown. It’s our goal to help eliminate the fear of the health care system, then secondly, to provide a better understanding of what preventative care can do.”