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Physicians, social scientists team up to reduce health disparities in Chicago

DePaul University and Rush University study how location impacts health

Dr. David Ansell of Rush University Medical Center makes a presentation about health equity during a conference hosted by DePaul University. Rush and DePaul have formed a new Center for Community Health Equity, which seeks to improve health outcomes and contribute to the elimination of health inequities in Chicago. Ansell has been a key advocate for the center, which teams up physicians at Rush with social scientists in DePaul’s Master of Public Health program. (Photo by Jeff Carrion)
CHICAGO - Individuals are born with their own personal health potential, yet social factors like a lack of access to quality care can negatively affect their health. A new collaboration between DePaul University and Rush University — the Center for Community Health Equity — seeks to improve health outcomes and contribute to the elimination of health inequities in Chicago.

A public event to officially launch the center will be held Oct. 29 from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Searle Conference Center, 1725 W. Harrison St., in the Room 500 lounge. RSVP to by Oct. 22.

The event will include opening remarks from the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M., president of DePaul University; Dr. Thomas Deutsch, provost of Rush University; and Dr. David Ansell, senior vice president of system integration and a professor of internal medicine at Rush University Medical Center.

There will also be a discussion on health equity in Chicago, including panelists Jaime Dircksen, managing deputy director of the Chicago Department of Public Health; Wrenetha Julion, professor of nursing at Rush University; and Magdalena Nava, acting director of the Humboldt Park Community Diabetes Empowerment Center. Nava is also a student in DePaul’s Master of Public Health program.

Center brings together public health efforts throughout Chicago

DePaul and Rush will work to identify disparities, train health care workers and develop ways to collaborate in rapidly evolving health fields. DePaul social science faculty members will work with Rush health professionals to develop projects with the community’s needs at the forefront, evaluate student experiences in community-based clinics and programs, and analyze epidemiological data from Chicago and other cities.

“Both Rush and DePaul are dedicated to social justice and engaging communities in meaningful ways. This center takes these principles and integrates them into scholarship, education and community engagement,” said Fernando De Maio, center co-director and associate professor of sociology at DePaul.

“We hope that the center will be a convener and focal point that will help the entire health ecosystem in Chicago improve the quality of life of our residents,” said Dr. Raj Shah, center co-director and associate professor of family medicine with the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Rush University Medical Center.

‘Your zip code should not determine your life expectancy’

While there are many organizations in Chicago that address health disparities, DePaul and Rush are asking: What is it about location that matters to our health?

“Your zip code should not determine your life expectancy,” said De Maio. “No one should be disadvantaged from achieving their full health potential because of social position or other socially determined circumstances.”

But the fact is that where one lives has an effect on health, he stressed.

Through the new center, students in DePaul’s Master of Public Health program will have new opportunities for community-engaged health equity research and service. The following are the center’s initial projects:

  • Contribute to Rush's community health needs assessment. Rush has invited DePaul social scientists and students to work on its community health needs assessment. DePaul faculty and students are participating on a methodology task force to shape data collection and analysis, helping the hospital meet its obligations under the Affordable Care Act. Public health graduate students have helped to facilitate focus groups in 11 Chicago community areas, and the center is now working on analysis of the transcripts.
  • ompare health disparities in Chicago to other global cities. Researchers will compare data from Chicago with cities around the world, including Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo, to understand how each addresses health disparities. De Maio wondered, “Might it be that 'poorer' cities have been able to achieve more equitable outcomes with diabetes, asthma, heart disease?”
  • Understand the history of health disparities. Faculty affiliated with the center are working on a book that will compile essential health disparities studies from Chicago. The center hopes to use the book as a foundation for new health equity courses at both institutions.
  • Study community service in the health fields. Social scientists will examine how both medical and liberal arts students change as they become more involved in community service experiences. When students working in the field takes a homeless patient’s blood pressure, De Maio hopes that the students will learn the social context as well as the medical one.

Community health pioneer helps design center

“Rush is a health sciences university with graduate students in four colleges representing all health care fields,” said Ansell. “Combining our faculty and academic health resources with those of DePaul’s sociological and related academic resources will strengthen the program and assure we have an impact on reducing the gaping health disparities in our midst. But most important to the success of this center will be the relationship with our community partners that will help shape and provide direction for our work.”

Ansell, a key advocate for the center, witnessed the deep need for a different approach to solving health inequities in Chicago since his residency at Cook County Hospital in the1980s. Much of his work, advocacy and research have been dedicated to the proposition that health care is a human right. He is the board president of the Metropolitan Chicago Breast Cancer Task Force, which is working to reduce breast cancer mortality among African-American women in Chicago.

Social justice at heart of collaboration

“This is a remarkable opportunity for DePaul and Rush faculty and students to examine the social determinants of health. It’s also an opportunity to nurture truly collaborative work among health and community experts who share DePaul’s mission to address social injustices and improve community health practices for marginalized groups,” said Holtschneider, DePaul’s president.

To learn more about the center, visit: More information about DePaul’s Master of Public Health program in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences is available at DePaul University and Rush University Medical Center have a history of working together on initiatives ranging from research projects to a joint degree program. In 2014, they formalized a five-year collaboration to plan and coordinate new programs to benefit students in the field of health.


Fernando De Maio

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