UMass Dartmouth Partnership Advances Community Health

Together, we’re working to knock down barriers to health care

The South Coast region has cancer rates that are higher than state averages in almost all categories of cancer. Breast, prostate and lung cancers top that list.

“We know early detection is important in the treatment of cancer, therefore we offer free screening opportunities for residents who may have barriers to accessing other means of preventative care,” explains Rachel Davis, Southcoast Health Community Benefits Manager. “But the cancer rates are still high. That causes us to ask, ‘What’s going on? Are there other barriers or needs that we should consider?’ We don’t have the answers yet. It’s something we’re working on.”

By “we,” Davis is referring to a collaborative partnership between the UMass Dartmouth Public Policy Center and Southcoast Health Community Benefits Program.

David Borges, who directs research at the UMass Dartmouth Public Policy Center, elaborates: “We help collect, analyze and organize the data Southcoast Health depends on to identify the most pressing healthcare needs in our communities. Then, we look at ways to combine our respective resources to make effective decisions.” 

Powerful Data

The powerhouse pair is diligently working toward knocking down barriers to health care throughout the region. The action plan begins with Southcoast Health’s Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA), which is updated every three years. The next CHNA will be released later this year.

“The CHNA begins with a deep dive into quantitative data from numerous sources, including our state Department of Public Health and census track records,” Davis says. “Then, I work with David and his department to get qualitative data — from surveys, focus groups with residents living in our communities, and one-on-one interviews with community members.”

While collecting quantitative data is important, Borges emphasizes that there’s always room for interpretation. “By talking to people in the community, we can determine if the statistical data corroborates the feedback we hear,” he says. 

Positive Interventions

“After identifying the most pressing issues, we review resources,” Davis explains. “Internally, what can we reasonably work on as a health system? And what resources do we have in the community?”

Asking these questions can lead to positive interventions. For example, explains Barbara Acksen, PhD, Chair of the Greater New Bedford Allies for Health and Wellness (GNB Allies), by collaborating with Southcoast Health, UMass Dartmouth and several other organizations, GNB Allies received a prestigious grant that has helped them save lives.

Through a previous CHNA, GNB Allies identified an underserved group of community members being diagnosed with colon cancer. “We were distributing free fecal immunochemical test (FIT) kits, but only 10 percent came back for analysis,” Acksen recalls.

“Southcoast Health helped us see a way to better utilize our community health workers,” Acksen says. “We sent them into the community to distribute FIT kits, as before, but then we had the workers go back and collect the kits for analysis. Our return rate jumped to nearly 85 percent. Now, if someone tests positive for colon cancer, we can guide them to treatment.” 

Building Bridges

Sometimes, pairing up resources can help a community tackle a complex health issue, sums up Kathy Downey, PhD, RN, the Public Health Nurse for Marion, Mass.

“We desperately needed a broader community education program specific to opioid abuse. How and where we were going to do this was a big question mark,” Downey explains.

Downey and her team approached UMass Dartmouth for help enlisting nursing students from area schools. Southcoast Health brought in nurses, too. “With this remarkable resource of skilled, dedicated help, we were able to train nurses as well as individuals out in the community about Narcan®[a nasal spray that can reverse opioid overdose],” she says.

According to Downey, Southcoast Health’s involvement was the key to a successful event. “Our community and UMass Dartmouth bring me awesome resources in my role as a public health nurse, but sometimes we need to tie everyone together. One of the easiest ways to do that is to take another powerhouse, which is Southcoast Health, and have them be the bridge,” she says.

Breaking Barriers

Going full circle, does Davis expect to address our region’s high cancer rates by breaking down barriers to potentially life-saving cancer screening?

“We have the partnerships, the resources, and we’re building data every day. We just need to put it all together. Then we’ll find the right intervention,” she says.

Visit Southcoast Community Benefits to learn more about Southcoast’s efforts to improve our communities’ health.