Shawn Jackson and Susan Gresko stood in front of an auditorium crowd of almost 50 Brewerytown and Sharswood residents at Camelot Academy on Oct. 17. They were there to speak on behalf of Vaux Community Health Center, which opened in early September and offers affordable health care to the uninsured.
Jackson, a family nurse practitioner, and Gresko, a pediatric nurse practitioner, spoke about programs the health center provides, including information about flu shots for underinsured and uninsured patients, and instructions for setting up insurance plans.
Residents were clearly intrigued, but a few wondered why they were just finding out about Vaux.
When the center first opened in September as an extension of the Temple College of Public Health, it blanketed the neighborhood with flyers to get the word out. At an event with Philabundance, health care workers assisted in the distribution of food for the school and community as part of introducing the health center to the larger community.
“We’re still in the process of trying to get the word out,” Jackson said. “It’s quite apparent that we haven’t.”
Brewerytown resident Greg Parker asked about the types of marketing strategies the health center was using to let people know it is open and accepting new patients.
Jackson said this was an area Vaux had been struggling with, but attending meetings like this one was part of getting the word out. The center offers a wide range of services to help residents access care they might not otherwise afford. For instance, Jackson said that if people didn’t have insurance plans, staff would work one-on-one to help them set up those plans.
“If you package what you just said and put it on social media, you’ll have half the neighborhood there,” Parker said.
The community of North Central Philadelphia was ranked among the lowest neighborhoods in Philadelphia in terms of length and quality of life according to a study produced by the Urban Health Collaborative and the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. These health outcomes are the product of the neighborhood’s physical environment, health behaviors, clinical care, as well as social and economic factors, the study said. The study shows residents in Sharswood have the lowest life expectancy for men and women in the city, as well as one of the higher rates of high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke.
“People in this neighborhood aren’t really educated on how they can stay healthy and know what type of care they need,” Parker said. “They don’t know that health care centers like this are there for them, it’s very word-of-mouth around the neighborhood.”
In the early months of Vaux’s opening, the clinic saw between one to three patients on a daily basis. On occasion, Vaux will have days where there are no patients, neither by walk-in or appointment. This does not mean a day off for the medical professionals, however.
On days where the clinic does not see any patients, the employees are working to build it up. They use the time to work on outreach to the community, as well as adding more resources in the actual facility. Vaux staff are also in contact with the staff at Temple Dental School, and the center is working to add a psychiatric provider.
Though it has been struggling to get the word out, the health center has been able to take advantage of its proximity to the Vaux Big Picture High School, with whom it shares a building, to push health education for children as well. Each semester, the school requires all students to participate in an exhibition where parents are invited to see what their child has been working on.
“That’s a good opportunity for us to talk about the services we offer,” said Sofia Carreno, Vaux’s nurse manager.
The clinic also works in conjunction with Philadelphia Housing Authority police officers, who are employed by the school, to help identify stressors and triggers students might have in the classroom.
“We want to find fun ways to deal with those stressors to interact with their peers in a different way,” Carreno said.
Being a resource for the entire community, from young to old, is a priority for the Vaux Health Center.
“I think access [to health care] is one of the biggest issues,” Jackson said, “And then just getting the word out to let people know that we’re there, number one. Number two, is we want to provide the care that they want us to provide. I think one of the issues for us is trying to identify what kind of care the community wants.”
To gather this information, Jackson spoke with several residents who were seeking a new primary health care provider. Jackson discovered that when Hahnemann University Hospital closed, insurers took the patient population and sent them to different clinics based on their ZIP code.
One resident said he was given Stephen Klein Wellness Center as a primary health care provider, but hadn’t been given that choice of where he was placed. Jackson said it is evident that residents want to be able to choose their primary health care provider.
In addition to primary health care, the medical professionals at Vaux are working to offer education programs and preventive care. These programs include regular education sessions in the community about conditions such as high blood pressure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
“We are in a community that is primarily African American,” Jackson said, “And as we all know, African Americans suffer disproportionately from high blood pressure, hypolipidemia, and diabetes. So we can help that population learn how to prevent those diagnosis’ from even occurring through diet, physical activities, and decreasing their stress.”
Though there are doctors and medical services in Brewerytown and Sharswood to help with these ailments, unreliable transportation in the neighborhood is often cited as a barrier to access, Jackson said. SEPTA buses do not run readily through the neighborhood, but there are plans for SEPTA to reevaluate the need to come through the community.
As a brand-new health care provider, Vaux staff said that word will have to get out about the quality of care and the service they offer before they see a real uptick in patients. Jackson estimates that in six to eight months the health center will be a fully operational primary care office with a steady stream of patients.
“As nurses, we take time and educate our patients about the disease process in a way they can understand,” Jackson said. “So I think that’s how we can differentiate ourselves.”
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