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VCU launches Office of Health Equity

A Q&A with Sheryl Garland, chief of health impact, VCU Health System, and executive director of the VCU Office of Health Equity

VCU Health downtown campus VCU Health downtown campus

Virginia Commonwealth University has launched the Office of Health Equity. This new office will build upon the accomplishments, relationships and knowledge gained from the VCU Health Equity Initiative to advance the health equity strategic goals of the university and health system.

Established in 2016, VCU’s Health Equity Initiative was a collaboration of Virginia Commonwealth University, VCU Health System and community partners. Its goal: to design and implement models for infusing health equity principles into the education and training, research and patient care missions of VCU and VCU Health System. The initiative achieved these goals and launched several successful programs, including the History and Health: Racial Equity series.

Carrying the momentum from the Health Equity Initiative and grounded in the belief that we should care for the whole person and not just the condition, the Office of Health Equity will address systems that create health inequities. The office is also charged with developing educational programs and activities that support learning for our team members, students, health care professionals and the public regarding health disparities and the challenges they present.

Leading the way will be Sheryl Garland, chief of health impact at VCU Health, who will serve as executive director for the office. VCU Health News sat down with Sheryl to learn more about the new office, her role and what she's most excited about in this inaugural year.

Sheryl Garland headshotHow would you describe the Office of Health Equity?

I describe the office as a hub to coordinate activities and bring together partners across the university, health system and the community who are focusing on addressing health equity. And what I mean by health equity is trying to make sure that the people and the populations we serve can achieve optimal health and be as healthy as possible.

Tell us about your role as leader of this office.

My role is to develop programs and partnerships that support the populations and the communities that are served by VCU Health, with a particular focus on populations that have experienced challenges and that have encountered health inequities in the past. I'm excited about the launch of the Office of Health Equity because of the team that has been assembled and the opportunity to engage with academic and community partners to explore innovative solutions. In addition to being chief of health impact for the health system, I will have the opportunity to align this role through focused initiatives as the executive director of this office within the university.

What does success look like for the Office of Health Equity during its first year?

We have three core goals: First, we want to make sure that we are enhancing educational programs to increase knowledge around health disparities and health inequities that support learning objectives for our students and trainees, while also enhancing the level of understanding of our faculty, team members and the public in general. There have been a host of great activities going on across the university and health system, and we want to highlight them and hopefully, take them to another level. The Office of Health Equity team wants to be very focused and intentional about meeting our core objectives that align with the university’s and the health system’s goals around advancing health equity.

Second, we want to align with academic colleagues to be a catalyst and a connector to increase the quantity and quality of health equity research that is facilitated by our faculty in collaboration with community partners.

Finally, we really want to expand the work at the university and in the health system by enhancing existing and developing new collaborations with community partners to address social determinants of health that are often drivers of the health outcomes that we're seeing.

Can you share a specific example about how you would like to expand your work with community partners?

We know that there are a host of issues across the community that we serve throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia, where there are populations and communities that are impacted by social determinants of health. One example is communities where residents grapple with access to food and are designated as “food deserts.”

We also know that transportation is often a barrier for getting access to social services as well as medical care. Another area of concern relates to housing, which can be a huge detriment to achieving positive health outcomes — either from a perspective of being homeless or having some level of housing instability.

We, as a health care system, are not necessarily in the business of addressing these issues directly. Currently, we have not gotten in to the business of owning apartments or grocery stores. Nor do we operate public transportation systems. But there are partners in the community who do.

So the question is, how can we collaborate in a different way with those partners to figure out how to close the gaps that exist in some of those areas? And it's not just about turning to a partner and saying, “What can YOU do?” But how can we look at where the gaps are and what opportunities exist to work together to ensure community agencies and organizations have the capacity to support the needs of communities and to close existing gaps.

One example we've seen happen across the country is health systems really lean in and say it's important that not only our patients, but all residents who reside in communities we serve have access to healthy food, stable housing and dependable transportation. In regards to addressing food insecurity — exploring opportunities to partner with food banks or grocery stores to make sure that people get access to healthy food. Are there investments that we should be making as a health system to address these social determinants of health?

Those are the kinds of connections we want to make and those are the types of questions we are thinking about.

As you think about your priorities and the work that lies ahead, what are some challenges that you anticipate coming up in your first year?

We're going to be challenged to identify all the right parties to bring to the table, understanding there are so many groups engaged in doing good work. What I'm finding is that when organizations are doing really good work, often they don't stop to measure or document the outcomes because they're focused on getting it done.

So one of our challenges will be how do we find the groups that are doing the great work and making an impact, then connect them with partners who might be able to help move their work to the next level.

I think another challenge will be addressing the needs because in some cases, they are so great. We know we're not going to meet them all. So how do we stay focused on trying to make an impact, with the understanding that there's going to be a lot that may be left undone?

That means we've got a long road ahead of us. This isn't a sprint, it's a marathon. And we have to find a way to feel good about making small steps, with the understanding that we are at least making some impact.

How does the work of your office translate to the general public?

I think that's something we're going to have to work on because a critical component of what this office needs to do is create effective two-way communications. We need to be able to share what we're doing. But more importantly, we need to be able to continuously asking the community, “What do we need to do? What should we be focusing on?”

This will be an iterative process. We're going to have to figure out how to not only share information and get it out to various communities and organizations and partners who may be interested, but also figure out how we get feedback and be open to addressing the needs that are identified by community members.

What excites you the most about leading the Office of Health Equity?

I think I am excited about the opportunity to build upon a concept that was born five years ago through the health equity initiative to integrate the principles of health equity into our core missions. During this time, there were initiatives piloted in each of the three goal areas that led to innovative programs that now have operational homes.

In addition, I'm most excited about continuing that important work, serving as an operations home for some of these activities and development hub for new initiatives. This is an opportunity to look for ways to support the university and health systems’ strategic goals around advancing health equity. It gives us a place and the ability to say, “Here's where we can serve as the incubator for those ideas and bring community partners together.”

Do you have any closing thoughts you would like to share?

This will be a venture that will develop and change over time as we uncover new issues and work with community, university and health system partners to learn about the drivers behind the health inequities that exist.

We will have the opportunity to do some deep dives on health disparities data that represent the tangible indicators of the inequities. This is going to be a great time to ask questions, bring academic partners to the table to explore answers, and then get creative with community partners to uncover potential solutions to help improve the health of communities and help the residents of our Commonwealth achieve optimal health.