In 1995, Rebecca OnieŚthen a student at Harvard UniversityŚwas inspired by an article about Dr. Barry Zuckerman, chairman of the pediatric department at Boston City Hospital (now Boston Medical Center). In the article, Dr. Zuckerman advocated for a holistic approach to pediatrics that would address the link between poverty and poor health. Convinced that dedicated college volunteers could be key to achieving Zuckerman's vision, Onie approached him about forming a partnership between students and hospitals. After spending six months researching the idea in the pediatrics department, Onie and Zuckerman joined together in 1996 to create Health Leads (formerly Project HEALTH), an organization dedicated to breaking the link between poverty and poor health by connecting low-income patients in urban medical centers with community resources so responding to social determinants of health can become a standard part of patient care. Health Leads's model is simple but effective: in clinics where the program operates, physicians can "prescribe" food, housing, fuel assistance, or other resources for their patients as routinely as they do medication.
How the Program Works
The Jackson family arrived at the Harriet Lane Clinic at Johns Hopkins Medical Center panicked by their toddler's difficulty breathing. During the family's visit, the pediatrician on call diagnosed the child with asthma and prescribed medication. However, she also learned that the Jacksons and their three young children lived with 11 others in a dilapidated Baltimore apartment, amid asbestos and peeling lead paint. Because the family was unable to find work and lived off a meager income, the children often went without food for days at a time. On top of all this, the family had spent the last week in the bitter cold of winter without heat because their utilities had been shut off.
After talking with the Jackson family and understanding their living conditions, the pediatrician prescribed a visit to Health Leads in the clinic waiting room. Sonia Sarkar, a sophomore at Johns Hopkins University and Health Leads volunteer took on the Jackson's case. Within a few weeks, Sonia had helped the family enroll in health insurance, reducing their reliance on expensive emergency room visits. The Jacksons also received financial assistance to turn on their utilities and buy healthy food for their children, while Mrs. Jackson enrolled in a job-training program. Most importantly, their toddler's health improved as the family entered the path of financial independence.
Creating Future Leaders Who Will Change the Healthcare System
Utilizing a corps of inspired and well-trained undergraduate volunteers like Sonia, the Health Leads program runs at little cost, while simultaneously creating a pipeline of future medical and social leaders who have the conviction and experience needed to create change in America's healthcare system. Reflecting on how her experiences as a Health Leads volunteer have influenced the way she practices medicine, Mia Lozada, now a University of Chicago medical student, observed, "My classmates think you write a prescription, and you're done. I ask, can the patient read the prescription? Does she have health insurance to fill it? Does she need transportation to the pharmacy? Does she have food at home to take with the prescription?"
Like Mia, many of Health Leads's student volunteers go on to work in fields related to health or poverty. Last year, 83 percent of graduating volunteers planned to go on to graduate study or work in these areas after graduation. By collaborating with clinical teams and social service agencies to meet families' needs, student volunteers become powerful advocates for social change as they gain insight into the challenges families face in maintaining their health while living in poverty.
Impact, Recognition, and Future Growth
Health Leads's program is currently located in 22 pediatric clinics and emergency rooms in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New York City, Providence, and Washington, DC. Last year, 1,000 volunteers connected more than 9,000 families with resources like affordable housing, child care, employment, GED classes, and job training. These services enable families to avert crises and to access increased income and education, all of which result in better long-term health outcomes.
Today Onie serves at Health Leads's CEO, and her work has been recognized throughout the medical community. In 2009, Health Leads was featured in Michelle Obama's remarks at the TIME 100 Most Influential People Gala, and Onie was awarded a 2009 MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known at the MacArthur "Genius Award." Onie is working to grow Health Leads nationally, focusing on expanding its services in key cities to help make the social determinants of health a standard part of patient care for all Americans.