Melissa Simon, MD, Leads Center for Health Equity Transformation
July 28, 2020 | 5 min. to read
Across the nation and around the world, George Floyd’s death ignited a movement to eradicate discrimination, social injustice and systemic inequities. Across Northwestern Medicine and Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Obstetrician and Gynecologist Melissa Simon, MD, MPH, has been entrenched in this effort since 2006, working to combat and raise awareness of health inequities for not only Black Americans but for all minorities in Chicago’s most vulnerable communities. And in 2018, NM and Feinberg School of Medicine announced the newly launched Center for Health Equity Transformation in the Institute for Public Health and Medicine (IPHAM) and named Dr. Simon the director.
The Center for Health Equity and Transformation is a joint effort between NM and Feinberg School of Medicine. The center’s mission — and Dr. Simon’s passion since joining NM — is to lift health for all by exposing root causes of health inequities and serving as a hub that pushes boundaries in research, education, workforce development and community engagement. The center is unique in its ability to draw on the resources and multidisciplinary expertise of IPHAM and Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center to foster change.
“Our work has always focused on the North Star of promoting racial and social justice, and lifting health for all in every aspect,” explains Dr. Simon. “Disparities exist across multiple sectors in society — education, housing, access to nutritious foods, access to health care. Because of this complexity, it’s important to have a strategy when you are trying to improve health at a regional, national and global level. The Center for Health Equity and Transformation uses design thinking that takes a broad approach to getting at the core of discrimination, bias and all the ‘isms,’ including racism. Our work involves the research, programming, delivery and partnerships required across the city and the world to create greater equity and end healthcare disparities.”
The COVID-19 pandemic brought the Center’s work into sharp focus, and working together with NM leaders and medical students from Feinberg School of Medicine, the team implemented an outreach program called NM Hope to assist patients in the hardest-hit communities.
“The pandemic disproportionately impacts Chicago’s most vulnerable populations, resulting in a disproportionate number of cases and deaths among African Americans, Latinx and other minorities,” Dr. Simon explains. “We had to make sure these communities were receiving accurate information about the pandemic, and about masking and hand-washing and social distancing. And we needed to bring the voice of these communities back to the academic community so we could better tailor programs that meet their needs.”
The NM Hope program stems from COVID-19 patient outreach work that was piloted in the West Region by NM’s Quality team led by Cynthia Barnard and Regional Medical Group Medical Director of Quality Douglas Ambler, MD. In partnership with the City of Chicago and Mayor Lightfoot’s Racial Equity Rapid Response Taskforce, Dr. Simon and her team from the Center for Health Equity and Transformation, alongside NM Quality, identified nearly 7,000 high-risk patients in underserved communities across all regions of the health system, with the goal of reaching out to each patient through a combination of phone calls, NM MyChart messaging and direct mail to provide:
Screening for COVID-19 symptoms
COVID-19 prevention education
Assistance with medication refills
Scheduling for primary care visits
Screening for social determinants of health
Risk assessment for interpersonal violence
“We took a stance to say there’s a disproportionate burden of COVID-19 in certain ZIP codes, and all health systems across Chicago should take a part in reaching out to these communities, not just to learn about COVID-19 but about general health needs, violence, and social and mental health,” says Dr. Simon. “This is the first time NM has had this type of outreach effort; this is a pivotal moment for NM, and I am honored to be part of it.
“The way we deliver health care going forward cannot be the way we used to do it,” Dr. Simon continues. “We need to acknowledge that health is impacted by not only access to care but by access to food, education, transportation, safety, and decades of racist policies and practices. Our job as a healthcare system is to understand those needs, as well as the impact of racist policies and practices, and to address them to the best of our abilities.”
The Center for Health Equity Transformation offers an abundance of resources to help lift health for those who are impacted by healthcare disparities. The center also is involved in a number of education programs to help train the next generation of health disparity scientists. The center has been awarded a grant from the National Institutes of Health to prepare the next generation of scientists committed to pursuing research that improves minority health and reduces health disparities. For more information about the Center for Health Equity Transformation: