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Closing the Health Gap Between East and West

Dr. Kim
Image of Tracee Hall and William Lawson
Tracee Hall, Dell Medical School director of public health and community engagement; and Dr. William Lawson, director of community health programs and professor, Huston-Tillotson University; associate dean for health disparities, Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin.

As the sprawling capital city grows in size, so too does the gap between rich and poor. According to a 2015 report from the Martin Propensity Institute, Austin is the most economically segregated large metro area in the country.

The economic divide has become increasingly acute in East Austin, where many historically underserved residents lack access to a luxury that is often taken for granted: quality health care.

With the creation of the Dell Medical School, and the many service-learning programs across campus, UT Austin is working hard to eliminate Austin’s persistent health disparities.

“Addressing inequities in healthcare access in Austin is integral to the DDCE’s community engagement vision,” says Dr. Suchitra Gururaj, assistant vice president for community engagement. “Through service-learning courses, community engagement and health dialogues, and activist research, we forge connections with nonprofits, residents and the government to shed light on these inequities and collaborate on possible solutions.”

Key and perhaps most important to these efforts is the landmark partnership between Huston-Tillotson University (HT) and the Dell Medical School at UT Austin. In an effort to expand health services to low-income residents, both institutions have appointed faculty members to manage programs within the new Sandra Joy Anderson Community Health and Wellness Center. Located on the Huston-Tilotson campus, the new center will offer health care services in a primary care setting to residents in East Austin and across Travis County. Partners include CommUnityCare and Austin Travis County Integral Care.

In addition to the creation of the health center, the HT-UT partnership brings new opportunities for students to work together to increase health and wellness across the community. This includes a behavioral health service-learning program that will launch this fall. The pilot program is a collaboration between the Community Engagement Center, a unit within UT Austin’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, and the Dell Medical School’s Health Disparities Division.

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School of Nursing Professor Dr. Miyong Kim leads the Community Health Dialogues. These public events are a partnership of the Community Engagement Center and the School of Nursing’s Transdisciplinary Collaborative Research in Self-Management Science.

“The overall goal of the behavioral health service-learning project is to actively engage students in community activities that will promote a greater understanding of the disparities seen in behavioral health services, access to care and prevention,” says Tracee Hall, Dell Medical School director of public health and community engagement.

UT Austin students participating in the program will work with community partners, behavioral health providers and faith organizations to improve mental health education among underserved residents. Among their many projects, they will help residents use an online mental health screening tool called WhatsMyM3 to screen for various psychological impairments, such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder.

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Ultimately envisioned as a $35 million complex, the Sandra Joy Anderson Community Health and Wellness Center is named after the late daughter of HT alumna Ada Cecilia Collins Anderson, who gave the historically Black university $3 million — the largest gift in the institution’s history.

Undergraduate and graduate students from schools across the university, including the Dell Medical School, College of Natural Sciences, and the School of Nursing, will also participate in other service-learning initiatives this fall. In collaboration with partners at the new center, they will work to bring community-based physical and health services to residents in need.

In addition to enhancing professional development opportunities for students, the HT-UT partnership will also help build momentum for the Community Health Dialogues. These public forums, coordinated by the School of Nursing and the Community Engagement Center, address Austin’s myriad health disparities. Insights from these research-based dialogues will help community members—including partners at the new center—explore sustainable health care solutions for the city’s many uninsured residents.

“In bringing healthcare support and resources into the East Austin community, we provide an opportunity to tackle behavioral health, community wellness, unemployment, homelessness and incarceration. Health care is a vital component to dismantling other social ills,” says Dr. William Lawson, director of community health programs and professor at Huston Tillotson University. He is also the associate dean for health disparities at the Dell Medical School.

Top photo by Bret Brookshire