The Columns

Changing Perspectives: Michael Sullivan ’18 Changing Perspectives, Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers, Camden, N.J.

— by on August 24th, 2016

Michael Sullivan '18

“Being able to relate my classroom studies to real experiences has made my academic work all the more captivating.”

I remember how many people looked at me in disbelief when I told them I would be spending my summer living and working in Camden, New Jersey. As time went on, I heard the same responses repeatedly. Some people would warn me to be careful, others would ask me if I knew how dangerous it was, and still more would simply say something along the lines of “Wow, good luck.” While I did my best not to let this effect my expectations, I could not help but feel a tad overwhelmed (and to be honest, slightly frightened) to be heading into an environment with such an infamous reputation.

When I arrived to my placement at the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers (also known as the Coalition), my uneasy feelings were amplified as I learned exactly what my responsibilities would be within my organization. I would be going out to 12 different primary care practices all over the city of Camden and collecting patient satisfaction surveys. I would be walking into unfamiliar doctors’ offices with a clipboard and a name-tag, approaching complete strangers, asking them to tell me about their personal relationship with their doctor. About half the time, I would be asking and recording responses in Spanish. My team of interns was tasked with collecting 700 surveys by the end of the summer, and it felt like a very daunting task.

However, the uneasiness subsided quickly. For all the negative media attention that Camden gets, it is a rather small city; both geographically and in terms of population. With only 80,000 residents, the city takes up less than 9 square miles, making it more than fifteen times smaller than neighboring Philadelphia. It is easy to get a feel for how the city is organized, and it was a few short weeks before I stopped looking at my GPS for directions. I got a chance to see the revival efforts in Camden. Business development non-profits have been working to create a healthier economy in the city of Camden, facilitating efforts such as the relocation of the Subaru National Headquarters into Camden. I saw evidence of the healthy foods initiative that the Food Trust of Camden was taking to bring fresh produce into corner stores all over the city.

My most personal experiences with these efforts came from my own placement. I was inspired to see the work that the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers was doing to help improve the quality and access of healthcare for every resident in Camden. While their mission is broad, the Coalition focuses on implementing data-driven measures that lower cost and expand opportunities for better healthcare.

In order to use data-driven policies, the Coalition needs to have data collected. The other interns and I spent 6 weeks in the lobbies of doctors’ offices with the survey. We asked about barriers to receiving healthcare the patient encountered, the relationship of the doctor and the staff with the patient, and even some questions about the level of food insecurity the patient experienced. Although most of the interactions I had with patients were short, I was amazed at how easily and often people would open up to me about their health and personal life. While I did not have background information about anybody that I surveyed, and there was no way to tell if the patients were in poverty or not, about 40% of the population of Camden lives below the poverty line. The data that we collected revealed that around 50% of the people we surveyed did not have enough secure income to be sure they would be able to provide enough food for the week. It is a city of under-served individuals, and I had a unique opportunity to try and help give them a voice. In that regard, I found my experience to be invaluable.

My Poverty 101 professor always emphasized the importance of building relationships with people for whom you do service work. Although I did not spend a lot of time with any single patient, I have a greater understanding of why it is so important that those relationships be built. Whether it was listening to man talk about how his homelessness effects his ability to see a doctor, or helping an older woman with poor eyesight fill out forms in the waiting room after she completed my survey, I began to see the barriers that can prevent health access more clearly, and specifically how poverty can make those barriers nearly insurmountable. I look forward to continuing to find ways to eliminate these barriers, not just in Camden, but around the country and the globe. There is work to be done, but I know I can live to see the day when saying that you will be spending a summer in Camden will no longer illicit responses of cautionary warnings, but rather those of optimism and hope.

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