Strategic Initiative Officer, Rhode Island Foundation
You were recently appointed Strategic Initiative Officer at the Rhode Island Foundation. Tell us about the foundation and the work you do.
The Rhode Island Foundation is a philanthropic organization that works to improve the quality of life in Rhode Island. We are a community foundation, meaning our funds come from individual, family, and organizational donors. Their generosity, the inspiring work of our development staff, and the hard work of our board of directors, leadership, and grants department allows us to support the transformative work of nonprofit organizations throughout the state. Founded in 1916, the Rhode Island Foundation is the largest funder of nonprofits in Rhode Island, and is coming off a record-breaking year of grantmaking and its fourth-best year of fundraising.
I am very grateful to have recently been appointed to the position of Strategic Initiative Officer for Healthy Lives. In this role, I lead the Foundation’s activities and grantmaking in the health sector. Within my sector, there are a variety of funds and related initiatives ranging from medical research funds for junior faculty to the Fund for Healthy Rhode Island, which supports innovative and integrated models of healthcare delivery. There are also strategy grants, which support nonprofits large and small that are engaged in work that aligns with our health sector objective of improving access to and quality of primary care for all Rhode Islanders. Because of the proactive nature of our work, we engage in discussions about healthcare reform alongside policymakers, payers, providers, and community based organizations. We listen, question, invest in innovative and proven concepts, and convene stakeholders and subject matter experts.
I’ve been listening to the leaders of state, local and community-based organizations to learn from their experiences and perspectives, and to think about what resources and conversations are needed to continue to improve health in Rhode Island. For example, improved child health can reduce school absenteeism and in turn, improve school performance. Likewise, higher educational attainment is associated with better health status. The multidisciplinary approach to improving the quality of life for Rhode Islanders is one of the many things that I like about the Rhode Island Foundation.
In addition to working at the Rhode Island Foundation you are very busy doing other things. You are adjunct faculty in the University of Rhode Island and served as the Training Officer for the Providence Fire Department. You were also a member of the Emergency Medical Services Innovations Workgroup and the Overdose Data Working Group at the Rhode Island Department of Health. Tell us more about these jobs.
I have been involved in public safety in a variety of settings for over 20 years, the last 15 with the Providence Fire Department. Emergency responders have a unique perspective on health and the healthcare system. They often encounter people during their moment of greatest medical or social need, just like doctors and nurses. However, when you encounter patients in their home environment, you have a first-hand look at their context, their social network, the social and environmental determinants of health that impact their immediate health needs and long term health outcomes.
We have a very complicated healthcare system, which can provide great care, but for many is difficult to navigate, has limited capacity in some areas, or delivers care in silos without continuity or coordination between settings. Some opportunities for improvement include the management of chronic health conditions; frequent users of EMS and/or the emergency department; addressing behavioral health needs. Seeing some scenarios and patients over and over again motivated me to pursue a Master of Public Health degree, which provided me with the knowledge and skills to contribute to systems-level changes which will hopefully improve health outcomes.
After completing my MPH at Brown, I began to participate in workgroups that were tackling some tough challenges facing the state: drug overdoses, and frequent users of the 9-1-1 system and hospital emergency departments. The EMS Innovations Workgroup consisted of municipal Fire/EMS leaders, representatives from hospitals, health centers, visiting nurse organizations, and the department of health. One outgrowth from that workgroup was the decision to pursue an innovative collaboration between EMS providers and primary care providers—Mobile Integrated Healthcare (also known as Community Paramedicine), a model that is seeing very positive results in reducing healthcare utilization and costs in urban and rural communities across the US, and my understanding is that it is close to being implemented locally.
I also had the opportunity to work alongside Professor Judith Bentkover as a Teaching Associate for the first three cohorts of the Executive Master of Healthcare Leadership program at Brown’s School of Professional Studies. After two years with the EMHL program, the University of Rhode Island invited me to teach their Health Services Administration undergraduate course, which I have done for the past two years. The opportunity to stimulate thought in future potential healthcare leaders is another means by which I hope to affect systems-level changes.
Did you always want to work in public health?
I guess in some shape or form, yes. As an undergraduate, I took a perspective-changing course in Medical Anthropology, and became more interested in the non-medical contributors to health outcomes. Later on, after learning that the delivery of healthcare only accounts for roughly 10 percent of health outcomes, I became interested in social and environmental determinants of health and other public healthcare topics in addition to the delivery of healthcare.
What was your most influential moment at Brown University?
There are many moments and relationships that were influential at Brown. I’ll give you two if that’s ok. The first moment was during a Graduate School convocation speech in 2011. Dean Peter Weber remarked about the different ways that undergraduate, master’s level, and doctoral level students interact with knowledge. Undergraduates acquire knowledge. Masters students apply knowledge. Doctoral students synthesize knowledge. In reality, there is some overlap in those areas, but Dean Weber’s summary helped establish my framework for learning during graduate school.
“Public Health is a team sport.”
The second moment was during my second year in the MPH program in a meeting with Dean Fox Wetle. We had a conversation about healthy aging, my public safety background and observations, and an EMS-related project that a first-year MPH student was going to be undertaking. Dean Wetle said some very encouraging words during our conversation that will stick with me as long as my memory serves me. I’ll keep her words in confidence, but they were very helpful in motivating me to achieve what I have so far. I try to pay it forward, both informally by being encouraging of any student I encounter, and formally by mentoring first-year students of color at Brown through the ALANA Mentoring Program.
In what ways has your public health education from Brown University helped you in your career?
Fortunately, I was recently asked a similar question by a student. There are three main ways that my Brown public health education has helped me. The first: the technical knowledge obtained through the MPH curriculum. All of the courses were great and relevant, but the courses that have been most beneficial to me in my new role are Social Determinants of Health and Designing and Evaluating Public Health Interventions. These two courses greatly inform how I think about project ideas and grant proposals in my new role.
The second: the realization that public health is a team sport. I seek out and value input from colleagues in other disciplines and at other organizations. There is value in having diverse perspectives and I appreciate the variation in thinking that comes from different life experiences.
The third: an appreciation for the importance of communication and the ability to build and leverage relationships. During my MPH internship, I worked on a global health project with a rural community in Haiti. The project required collaboration between individuals from about a half dozen organizations, vendors, donors, volunteers, and the Ministry of Customs in Haiti. There were a lot of moving parts. Communication and relationship building were key to the project’s success.
Over the past few months, I’ve been appointed to roles where I have been able to further apply my public health education. One appointment is to the Rhode Island Commission for Health Advocacy and Equity, a multi-stakeholder group that provides guidance to state agencies and policy makers on achieving health equity and reducing health disparities. More recently, I was named the vice chair of the Steering Committee for the Rhode Island State Innovation Model (SIM) Test Grant. The SIM Steering Committee sets the strategic direction and policy goals of a multiagency and multi-stakeholder initiative to transform Rhode Island’s healthcare system and improve health outcomes. As vice chair, I am helping to guide this effort which is funded by a $20 million grant from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a great opportunity to contribute to work with statewide impact.
Brown’s awesome faculty and great curriculum provided me with the knowledge and skills to engage in public health in ways that I had not envisioned. I am very grateful for the opportunity to help improve the health of our state through my work at the Rhode Island Foundation, and in collaboration with public, private, and community-based health sector stakeholders