The headlines scroll endlessly across our screens as digital trackers race to keep pace with COVID-19 cases and deaths. But in the wake of this turbulent health crisis, some of the most vulnerable members of our community are fighting a concurrent economic pandemic with enormous stakes: falling behind financially and facing a deadly disease.
Social determinants of health—including employment, the availability of nutritious food, transportation, and access to health care—influence approximately 80% of an individual’s health outcomes. Unfortunately, the economic fallout from COVID-19 heaped additional burden on people who may have already been struggling to make ends meet, making it more difficult than ever to access care and social services.
“We have seen an alarming 20% increase in families experiencing food insecurity during the pandemic,” says Shreela V. Sharma, PhD, RD. “A lack of basic resources, such as healthy foods, increases the risk for chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease—the same diseases that make people more susceptible to the fatal complications of COVID-19.”
Complicating matters for families in need, resources and social services are fragmented, making it difficult to find help. Often, the same family struggling to put food on their table also needs additional help, such as housing support, transportation assistance, or affordable health insurance.
As part of UTHealth School of Public Health’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sharma is leading an effort to address the mounting health and social needs of families throughout our communities by facilitating the development of a Community Information Exchange as part of her leadership role in the Health Equity Collective. She serves as co-lead of the Health Equity Collective, a community-wide coalition in the Greater Houston area that consists of more than 120 local organizations with UTHealth, American Heart Association, and Harris County Public Health providing the backbone. The Community Information Exchange is one of the Health Equity Collective’s primary efforts to establish an impactful and sustainable data-driven system to promote health equity in our community.
“We don’t want to just document the social issues impacting health outcomes; we want to do something about them,” she says. “With our school’s infrastructure embedded in our communities, we can meet patients where they are, learn what helps them most, and scale the Community Information Exchange to meet the needs of everyone during this pandemic and beyond.”
Health care organizations commonly screen patients for social determinants of health, which allows providers to understand the specific factors that may affect a patient’s health condition. The Community Information Exchange will enable social services and health care organizations to provide referrals to each other and ensure patients’ needs are met. This will also help pinpoint the impact of social services on population-level health outcomes.
“Similar to how doctors send patients’ prescriptions to pharmacies, health providers will be able to use it to send prescriptions for social services,” Sharma explains. “For instance, a doctor can refer a patient who does not have access to healthy food to a specific food pantry. The exchange will also notify the social service provider to ensure they are prepared to assist the patient.”
Additionally, people will be able to access the Community Information Exchange outside of the health care setting via an online access portal. After a client takes a screening test for various social needs, the exchange will identify services that the client can select.
“The Community Information Exchange will help us improve the health of vulnerable populations and make everyone more resilient against COVID-19,” says Sharma. “And it will continue to serve as an excellent resource for our community long after the pandemic passes.”
As part of the Health Equity Collective, Sharma plans to test a prototype in 2021 with a select group of nonprofit and health care partners. The exchange will gradually incorporate more partners, including health care providers, to offer seamless service to residents throughout the Greater Houston area.
Philanthropy can help Sharma’s team expand the exchange and scale it across the state to build a more equitable, accessible health system for every Texan.
“We are all in this together,” says Sharma. “The Community Information Exchange will help shield our communities by ensuring everyone has access to vital resources.”
A brighter outlook ahead
As quarantines and lockdowns rippled through our communities at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sharma recognized an opportunity to help families address mounting health and social needs through Brighter Bites, a nonprofit organization she cofounded in 2012. Brighter Bites distributes fresh produce and educational nutrition resources to low-income families in six major cities across the nation, including Houston. With help from School of Public Health students, they are compiling resources to ensure families have access to the help they need.
“We started by collecting evidence-based information, such as food pantry procedures, public transportation schedules, eviction laws, and mental health guidance,” says Amelia Khoei, a third-year MD/MPH student. “We organized that information into comprehensive documents for clients at each Brighter Bites location.”
Amelia also mustered additional student volunteers.
“Five minutes after sending a call for help to classmates, every volunteer position was filled,” she says. “COVID-19 canceled our clinical courses in 2020, taking us away from patients, but we all still wanted to do anything we could to help people in our community.”
Maha Almohamad, a second-year PhD student in epidemiology and graduate research assistant at Brighter Bites, is leading the charge to confirm the accuracy of each resource.
“We are constantly updating our resources as laws and guidelines change,” she says. “We also translate the resources into the languages our Brighter Bites families speak to ensure everyone has access.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the health and social inequalities that torment our communities, but thanks to School of Public Health students like Amelia and Maha, Brighter Bites is helpingto safeguard our most vulnerable families.