Bank of America-CUIMC Community Health Initiative Looks to Improve Community Engagement for Health and Well-Being

Photograph of a doctor in a lab coat, holding an ipad and speaking with a patient.

Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC) and Bank of America have teamed up to help the local Washington Heights community take a more active role in their health and well-being. The Bank of America-CUIMC Community Health Initiative aims to address systemic inequities in healthcare and better engage and support local BIPOC communities.

Earning Trust During the Pandemic

Started during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the initiative was created in part to develop ways to improve vaccination rates for BIPOC communities. As vaccination rates continued to lag behind in minority communities, the need was—and remains—significant.

"The task was huge; even just to get messaging across required a tremendous amount of resources," notes Magdalena E Sobieszczyk, MD, the Chief of Infectious Diseases at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center. "We have an embarrassment of riches with all these different vaccines. We needed people to understand it and take it so that they can help themselves and be healthy. Getting that message across definitely took a lot of work:"

Thanks in part to the funding support from Bank of America, the initiative was able to look at this problem as an opportunity to rethink how CUIMC interacts with the local community. The team developed ways to improve community trust and engagement with local health care providers. By removing barriers to care, involving community leaders and organizations, and building a sustainable presence in the neighborhood, the initiative has made progress toward meaningful, lasting changes in these relationships.

"We worked with trusted community partners who are connected with at-risk communities to serve as COVID-19 vaccine champions," said Sobieszczyk. "We worked with community-based organizations like Harlem Pride to distribute vaccines. We also distributed these vaccines at the Forum, the community center in Manhattanville."

Partnering with community health workers has been instrumental in building a stronger connection. "We worked with wonderful ambassadors like Olajide Williams and Rafael Lantigua, who translated many of the messages from the medical center to the community around us," said Sobieszczyk.

A Model For Ongoing Care

While Dr. Sobieszczyk focused on acute care issues, her partner in leading this initiative–James Lee, MD,  Chief of Endocrine Surgery–worked to enhance ongoing, multidisciplinary care within the community, using his team at Columbia’s Thyroid, Parathyroid, and Adrenal Centers as a model.

"We hired a native Spanish-speaking administrative assistant, as well as new providers who are fluent in Spanish, like Dr. Catherine McManus and Dr. Eric Kuo," said Dr. Lee. "Bank of America's grants, combined with several other funding sources, have allowed us to do all this." 

Ensuring that language isn't a barrier to care is an important priority of this initiative. Many members of the local communities are native Spanish speakers, so having a care team that speaks Spanish is key to encouraging effective communication.

The initiative's ambitious efforts are already paying off in a big way. "Over the last three years, we've doubled the number of patients we've seen from the Washington Heights, Harlem, and Bronx communities," notes Lee.

The initiative is looking to build on this progress by encouraging community members to pursue careers in the medical field through internships and training opportunities. The team also hopes to establish a greater local presence by creating community care sites that can provide primary care, prevention, mental health screening, and education. 

"It really took a village to do this kind of work," said Sobieszczyk. We couldn't have done it without the support of many individuals and entities at the medical center and without grants and philanthropy from sources like Bank of America. It's been very much an all-hands-on-deck approach."

Further Reading

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