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Campus & Community

Bringing Health Care Closer to Home

Public Health Undergrads Focus on Underserved Community’s Needs

By Carly Taylor ’19

Mona Center

Photo courtesy of Stephen Thomas

School of Public Health students in a class that focuses on providing health and wellness services to communities in need talk to a local barber in Temple Hills, Md., earlier this semester.

A doctor’s office on wheels. Checkups in patients’ native languages. Tweaks to beloved recipes to make them more nutritious. These are a few of the services that undergraduates in a School of Public Health class hope are working to help deliver to underserved communities near a one-stop care facility in Temple Hills, Md.

The Maryland Center for Health Equity (M-CHE) and Doctors Community Hospital partnered with Catholic Charities to open the Susan Denison Mona Center last fall to offer medical, dental and legal services. There are plans to add a health and wellness center focusing on preventive services. 

The course, “Redesigning Health Care: Developing a Clinic to Meet Community Needs,” uses human-centered design techniques to identify community needs and design solutions to raise awareness about the center while improving its services. Students who previously took the course, part of the Fearless Ideas series through the Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, focused on the planning and development of the center.

The idea for the Mona Center came out of a free dental clinic M-CHE and Catholic Charities sponsored at the Xfinity Center on campus in 2014, which attracted over 1,200 people in two days. Many of them needed much more than routine teeth cleaning, but had no access to regular care, said Stephen Thomas, a professor of health services administration and M-CHE director, who teaches the course.

“When the Mission of Mercy event is over, all of the people are literally scattered to the wind,” said Thomas. “They don't belong to any particular dental practice, and people are lost to follow up.”

Students this semester have interviewed multiple people in Temple Hills to learn about their health care challenges. One team homed in on a Mandarin-speaking restaurant owner, who travels an hour away to see a doctor who speaks her native language. Now students are working to implement language interpretation services at the Mona Center, which would be useful for a “significantly diverse” area like Temple Hills, said Rohini Nambiar ‘19, a student on the team.

Temple Hills is 89 percent African-American, while 5.55 percent are Hispanic, 3.75 percent are white and less than one percent are Asian, according to census data. It has high rates of uninsured and disabled residents, 11.4 and 10.1 percent, and a low percentage of college graduates. Residents speak a variety of foreign languages, including Spanish, African languages and French. 

Creating a bond with individuals in the community is a difficult but important step for students, said Thomas.

“If you're able to solve the problem for that one person, it will also be a solution for many others who have similar circumstances,” he said.

That relationship-building proved valuable for another group of students, who are collaborating with the Department of Nutrition and Food Science to make a cookbook inspired by barbershop employees who talked about their favorite comfort foods. The barbers beamed at the students’ sample book, which included healthier alternatives, Thomas said.

Joseph Dempsey, director of special projects at Catholic Charities, is looking forward to seeing how the opening of the health and wellness center next summer will benefit the community. 

“People in need and people from underserved communities getting to different places can be challenging,” said Dempsey. “The trick is to try to get as many services as you can under one roof so that a person can go and get a lot of good stuff done in one trip.”

Schools & Departments:

School of Public Health

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