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UT Austin Rethinking Strategies to Connect with Communities and Improve Health

Posted: Dec. 13, 2016

Ashley Henneghan RN, MSN and doctoral candidate at the School of Nursing

Alexandra Garcia, Associate Professor
at The University of Texas at Austin
School of Nursing

Alexandra Garcia, associate professor at The University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing, has been named the inaugural director of Community Engagement and Public Health for the Department of Population Health at Dell Medical School. She will have dual appointments in the UT Austin schools of nursing and medicine.

As director of Community Engagement and Public Health, Dr. Garcia will draw on her experience in public health research and education to create partnerships in the community and develop strategies that will transform the community health infrastructure and serve the varying needs of diverse populations — especially low-income and uninsured residents across the community. She will play a pivotal role in helping the Dell Medical School achieve its mission of revolutionizing the way people get and stay healthy.

Traditionally, health care has focused on the individual and disease treatment strategies developed for the so-called ‘average person,’ with little consideration for the differences between individuals or issues outside of health care settings that directly impact health. The School of Nursing and Dell Medical School intend to go beyond the ‘one-size-fits-all’ model to an upstream approach that promotes prevention through healthy lifestyles and healthy communities, as well as treatment of disease.

“The School of Nursing has a long history of successful practice and research interventions in the community,” Alexa Stuifbergen, dean of the School of Nursing, said. “For more than 20 years, the school has provided care to underserved populations at its two community-based wellness centers: The Children’s Wellness Clinic and the Family Wellness Clinic. The nurse practitioners at these centers oversee approximately 11,000 primary health-care visits with low-income, uninsured men, women and children every year. Programs provided there have changed the landscape of health care and outreach to countless residents of Central Texas.”

The Dell Medical School at UT Austin has articulated an ambitious mission to revolutionize how health care is provided and how health is promoted and supported in the community. To accomplish this, the Department of Population Health — one of just a handful of such departments to be created at a U.S. medical school — is reaching out to community agencies to explore ways of preventing disease while also enhancing access to new, high-value models of primary care.

The school and department also are working closely with Central Health, the local health care district, to transform care for low-income and uninsured residents across Travis County in ways that improve health and create a return on the investment of taxpayers. County voters elected in 2012 to support the medical school through property taxes that Central Health collects.

“The Dell Medical School and our Department of Population Health are concerned with the health of all of the residents of Austin and Travis County,” William Tierney, chair of the Department of Population Health, said. “We intend to improve the overall health of this community by engaging and connecting multiple sectors, including health care providers, community-based organizations, faith-based organizations, governmental entities, businesses, philanthropy and academia. But we must also find better ways of directly engaging with members of those communities, especially persons experiencing health inequities. I’m confident that Dr. Garcia, as an outstanding leader in nursing education and research with broad, longstanding experience in the community and public health, can help us achieve this.”

“In order to be more effective in improving population health, we need to enhance our community partnerships and to listen to the people we want to serve. For instance, all members of the community should have the opportunity to engage in decisions that affect their health, whether those conversations are specifically about health services or about the larger issues that affect health, such as housing, food, safety, transportation, physical activity, and emotional well-being and mental health,” Dr. Garcia said. “People in a community know best what they need and what will work for them. Listening to them will help us better understand these needs and develop more useful health strategies and interventions.”

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