As a member of AmeriCorps’ Resilience Team in Pittsburgh, Michael Roth worked to build the capacity of vulnerable communities to withstand extreme weather and other disaster-related events, and to improve the accessibility and affordability of housing stock. The Washington & Jefferson graduate has continued this work with the City of Pittsburgh, developing strategies on resilient infrastructure, environmentally-friendly energy procurement, and electric vehicles.
Something struck Roth throughout his work: When it comes to sustainability and disaster preparedness, seniors are often left out of the discussion. What would happen, he wondered, to older adults with complex medical needs in the event of a massive power outage—one long enough that healthcare facilities run low on fuel for generators? Would seniors with cognitive or physical limitations be able to quickly evacuate a building if flood waters or flames threatened?
This fall, as a member of JHF’s Jonas Salk Health Activist Fellowship, Roth took action. He created a game plan to make our region’s healthcare facilities more resilient, examining issues related to green building design, energy generation and storage, emergency water systems, ADA-informed planning, improved zoning codes, and wide-scale disaster preparedness training.
“The Salk Fellowship was a fantastic experience,” Roth says. “It provided me with the opportunity to create something from the ground up, and to think freely in a way that isn’t always afforded in traditional education.”
On November 29, Roth and the 31 other members of the 2018 Salk Health Activist Fellowship showcased their plans to change practice, policy, and perspectives around a health issue of their choosing during a Health Activist Expo at the August Wilson Center. Around 160 community members attended the Expo, which also featured a live band— fronted by a 2017 Salk Fellow—and even a magician.
The Expo is the culmination of the Salk Health Activist Fellowship, a magical ten-week program that equips participants with the skills to build a movement around a health issue that ignites their passion. During the program, the Fellows have partnered with local leaders in patient advocacy, media and storytelling, policy, and technology. The Fellows have backgrounds in twenty different disciplines, including medicine, healthcare administration, education, social work, nursing, pharmacy, health management systems, occupational therapy, psychology, public health, public policy, community engagement, and microbiology.
The health issues that they are working to solve are just as varied. The Salk Health Activist Fellows are taking on challenges that include improving maternal health and addressing the U.S. maternal mortality crisis; assessing the health needs of older LGBTQ individuals; improving low-income families’ access to child resources; uncovering solutions to physician burnout; and developing various programs to address social determinants of health, including health literacy and transportation.
Megan Raymond, a Doctor of Medicine candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, developed curriculum to equip medical students with the skills to discuss precision medicine and genetic testing with patients. She hopes to pilot the course, which includes simulated patient discussions, at Pitt next year.
“I want to implement this on the front lines of care, to help patients who are increasingly asking questions and showing up with test results,” says Raymond, who’s studying the role of genomic and precision medicine on health disparities. “As a medical student, the Salk Fellowship provided an opportunity for me to meet people from different background and disciplines,” Raymond says. “The speakers had great ideas to change medicine, from the grassroots all the way to the systemic policy level.”
Nikki Blake, an MPH candidate at Pitt, developed the concept of the MOM (Maternal Outcomes Matter) Collaborative. The MOM collaborative would work to address disparities in maternal mortality by creating a learning network of birthing centers that serve vulnerable populations, establishing a doula and midwife program, and strengthening diversity and inclusion practices in healthcare training and employment.
“The Fellowship challenged me to think beyond courses and semesters, to come up with an idea, and run with it,” Blake says. “It forced me out of my comfort zone, but with the support of the JHF staff and some amazing speakers—including some of last year’s Fellows who have continued their projects. It made me realize that my voice matters and I can make a difference in my work.”
The Salk Fellows will stay connected through the Health Activist Network, an in-person and online hub for health professionals from across the continuum to accelerate policy and care delivery improvements.
“I’m leaving the Expo with a network of people who are as passionate as I am, and with the knowledge to keep building my movement,” says Chinmayi Venkatram, a University of Pittsburgh student who created an overdose prevention and education program that re-frames the topic as a social justice, rather than criminal justice, issue. “This Fellowship is all about dreaming big, and making it happen.”