'We're them and they are us': Inside Advocate Health's community engagement strategy

Gwendolyn Oglesby-Odom, EdD, MSN, RN, began serving as enterprise vice president of community engagement for Charlotte, N.C.-based Advocate Health in September, and she brought more than two decades of healthcare experience to the role.

Advocate Health is the nation's third-largest nonprofit health system formed by the merger of Advocate Aurora Health, headquartered in Downers Grove and Milwaukee, and Charlotte-based Atrium Health. 

In her new position, Dr. Oglesby-Odom oversees community engagement efforts covering six states, 67 hospitals, more than 1,000 outpatient facilities and Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Wake Forest University. 

Before assuming her current role, she served as chief nursing officer and vice president for Advocate Trinity Hospital in Chicago.

Dr. Oglesby-Odom recently spoke with Becker's Hospital Review about her new role and her primary focuses. She shared her key objectives and goals in terms of community engagement, as well as some specific initiatives or programs to boost that engagement.

Editor's note: Responses were lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: How do you define and measure success in terms of community engagement and outreach?

Dr. Gwendolyn Oglesby-Odom: Some of our successes are really measured by the impact that we have in our communities. One example is our recent partnership with Habitat For Humanity and the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Foundation. I had an opportunity to participate in that community program a couple of weeks ago in our Charlotte market. Not only were we building houses for our community, we were assisting in building houses for four of our teammates. We realized our teammates are part of our community and part of the impact that we're having in our community actually impacts our teammates inside of our organization.  

The other big program that I feel we do well in both our Southeast region as well as our Midwest region is around food insecurity. On the South Side of Chicago, we have a food pharmacy that is run out of our Advocate Trinity Hospital. Our Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington, Ill., actually has a farm that delivers food from the farm to the South Side of Chicago, where we are able to give our food to those individuals who suffer from food insecurities and serve areas where we have food deserts. 

In addition, our physicians are able to give prescriptions to patients that may suffer from diabetes or hypertension who may need access to better food. We make sure they have access through our food pharmacy, and that's in our Midwest region. And in Georgia, we have something similar that's called Food as Medicine, which is also a food pharmacy.

Q: What are your key objectives and goals in terms of community engagement, and how do they align with the overall mission of Advocate Health?

GOO: We're very committed to disrupting the root cause of health disparities across our footprint. It's well documented that most of the inequities are associated with things that are other than health. Those social drivers of health. And so we're focused on implementing programs and services that actually address access to employment, nutritious food, housing, as well as other factors that actually impact the life expectancy of individuals living in certain ZIP codes. For food security, in each of our markets, we're engaging in partnerships that aim to provide nutritious foods to individuals. Last year alone in the state of Illinois, we provided about 160,000 pounds of food. And with that, we were able to feed more than 11,000 individuals. Through our food insecurity program in our Greater Charlotte market, we donated 11,000 pounds of food.

And then when we look at housing insecurity, we've partnered with a lot of public and private organizations. We're really focused in Mecklenburg County in North Carolina. Ensuring that we have housing and also in our Milwaukee and Cook County areas in Wisconsin and Illinois. Those are three of the areas where we're using public and private partnerships to address that with wraparound services. One entity in particular that I visited in our Charlotte market was the Pathways organization. What was so incredible about the Pathways organization is everything that patients need and community members need to live and get stable in life is under one roof. So having partnerships with organizations like Pathways really helps us to move the needle forward and in our focus areas around food security, housing and employment.

Q: Can you share some specific initiatives or programs that you have been involved in to improve community engagement and the overall health of target populations?

GOO: United Way is another big organization that we partner with to ensure that we're meeting the needs of the community in all of our markets. And then specifically on the South Side of Chicago, I would mention the South Side Healthy Community Organization. And so that is a collaboration with health systems, hospitals, University of Chicago, and federally qualified health centers on the South Side of Chicago. Together, there is a collaborative that the state has funded to help meet the needs of the community and to help people who need assistance in the community. They're able to stay in the community and access those services without going out further. Because what we see in the data is there's a large out migration of individuals that live on the South Side of Chicago to actually leave the South Side of Chicago for health services and other services related to their needs in the community.

Q: What are your future plans and vision for community engagement within the health system? How do you see it evolving in the coming years?

GOO: We're the third-largest nonprofit health system in the country, but we don't want to feel like that. We want to feel like we're truly integrated into the communities that we serve. The goal with community engagement is to make sure that we're interwoven into the community to where they don't see any difference. We're them and they are us. And that's really the whole goal is that we're all working together collaboratively to make sure that individuals are still in power not only around their healthcare, but all of those factors that impact their healthcare. We want to be true partners in the journey of life overall and not just specifically related to clinical healthcare. 

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