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Canisius Pre-Med Program director has her eyes set on health care for all

Allyson Backstrom has seen a tale of two cities since the Idaho native and longtime Omaha, Neb. resident arrived in Buffalo about four years ago to take a job as director of the Canisius College Pre-Medical Program.

“In Buffalo, even though we have a renaissance going on right now, we have huge health disparities,” she told me recently for an interview for this weekend’s In the Field feature in WNY Refresh.

“I think it’s something we’ve got to take a look at,” she said “They stem in part from poverty, from challenges in education, and they’re concentrated on our East Side with our African-American community and our West Side with our Latino and new immigrant communities.”

It has become the best of Buffalo times for those who have seen the region languish for decades. But it continues to be the worst of times for many longtime poor residents of one of American’s poorest cities.

Backstrom has taken a keen interest in that group, along with her students, since she arrived from Midland University outside Omaha. One way she looks to address poverty personally is in her role as a member of the Community Health Worker Network of Buffalo Academic Advisory Council. As a leader in a Jesuit college, she sees that as part of her calling.

Below are excerpts from our talk, most of them which I did not have room for in the print edition:

Q. Are there any stories you can share about some of the graduates here who have ended up at top schools or interesting fields?

Every student has their own story. The ones that inspire me the most are students who have not had every advantage and have been successful in spite of it. We’ve had a young man whose family had to flee Rwanda. He ended up growing up in refugee camps in several countries in Africa, came to Buffalo and did his last six months of high school in a Buffalo Public School. Learned English as a fifth language and came to Canisius. He is currently in a public health graduate program at Upstate Medical School and he will move from that into their medical school. While he was here, he was mentored a bit by Dr. Myron Glick, head of Jericho Road community health center. I was privileged to attend his citizenship ceremony a few months ago. He’s somebody who’s going to be a fabulous doctor. He’s interested in primary care, family medicine but honestly a lot of our pre-med students change their minds because you just don’t know the whole range until you get off to medical school.

We have a young man who’s taking a gap year between undergraduate and medical school who has really embraced every learning opportunity. He had started out at another school and found that he didn’t have the kind of interaction with the professors he wanted and transferred back to Canisius. This young man came to Canisius pre-med not a science major – people often you have to be a science major, but nope, he was a history major. But he did chemistry research while he was here and takes advantages of every learning opportunity, and that has shaped his next step. He wrote an honors thesis on the history of treatment of tuberculosis patients and found that has some similarities to the recent history of AIDS. He is doing a year of service with a group called AIDS United in Americorps in Washington, D.C., and will start medical school next year. He’s in the application process ... which takes about 15 months. He’s a local guy.

We had a young lady who nursed her mother through cancer and through death while she was a student here. She went on to medical school. She’s in an accelerated program. Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine runs a three-year program for students who know they want to do primary care and it let’s them get through medical school a year faster. They do more in the summer than a typical medical school. It lets them save a year’s tuition. It’s a way that lets the school really support students who want to go into primary care – and that’s sorely needed.

Q. What’s a community health worker?

They are folks who are working on the front line. They are of and from a community, trusted by a community, and they’re helping to connect people, to empower people, to support people in the whole realm of social determinants of health. It could be housing. It could be education. It could be getting connected to services. They really have the skills, knowledge and practices to help people be healthy, stay healthy. They serve as link between health and social services and build capacity – individual and community – by improving health knowledge and self-sufficiency.

Q. How many community health workers are there in Western New York?

Tough to measure because some people are community health workers and might not even label themselves as such. The network has put about 500 individuals through training, which takes the best practices for community health workers that have been established and puts them into a Buffalo context.

Q. It sounds like you’re talking here about a wide range of abilities, education, even roles in professional fields, correct?

Yes, and often they might not have education. These are not medical professionals like doctors, nurses. These might be folks who are working with Buffalo Perinatal on lactation. One of our community health workers works for Erie County Public Health talking to kids about safe sex and keeping themselves healthy. They work with the Matt Urban Hope Center to help people connect with housing. They work with the Jericho Road community health center on the Priscilla Project, where they have mentors and dulahs connected with pregnant women to get the prenatal and postnatal care. They’ve shown really good results. They work with PUSH Buffalo. They’re absolutely networkers.

We talk about patient navigators who help people get connected to health insurance but this is a much broader network. The Community Health Worker Network of Buffalo has something called “Chew and Chats” every month that lets the community health workers from around the city come together and focus on a different topic each month. It’s about networking: “Hey, I’ve got someone who needs child care while trying to get through a job training program,” and someone else saying, “I know someone, I know an agency.”

Q. What is the heath worker network and who does it help?

A network to train and support community health workers, as well as bring together other organizations and individuals that can support community health workers in their roles and help promote the community health worker model. They’re also involved in research and advocacy.

Q. How much are community health workers valued in terms of pay?

(Laughs.) Not enough. Not nearly enough. In fact, many community health workers are working in a volunteer capacity, so that’s one of our big challenges in terms of workforce development and convincing people of the value of a community health worker. In our litigious society, it’s a challenge because health care organizations will often equate a community health care worker with someone who’s doing health care and be afraid of the liability. Even though a community health worker might not have anything to do with (traditional) health care.

Q. Why did Canisius and the network decide it was a good idea to offer a certification program for community health workers?

From the Canisius standpoint, part of the mission of a Jesuit institution or university is to be an instrument of social justice, so it’s part of our mission to use our educational and service programs to be in the service of a marginalized community. From a community health worker perspective, we really do have a like mission about what we’re up to in the city. Having an academic credential is important. Having the Canisius name attached to a certificate gives more credibility and legitimacy to the training. (For more information and to register, call 888-8490.) We’re in our third training right now. We’ve trained a group for Evergreen and recertified a group that had been through certification before. Right now, we have Buffalo Public Schools student and parent training going on.

Q. Can you talk about that?

They have wellness committees in each school. This is a way to provide training to both the students and parents to try to work with other students and parents going forward to promote and sustain healthy behaviors in the schools. The students advocated last year to get healthy salads in the schools. They’re working on healthy vending machines and other things. The network also has been advocating in getting the Buffalo Public Schools in compliance with health policies including more physical education teachers in the schools, and recess. It also advocated in retaining the Breakfast in the Schools Program. If a kid’s hungry, they’re not going to learn. It’s really gratifying to see how motivated kids within the schools are to try to promote health.

Q. In your roles, what do you see as the greatest needs and challenges in Buffalo’s poorest neighborhoods?

One of the things I’ve learned working with the Community Health Worker Network is that I’m not in a position to say that. It’s more important to talk with someone in a community or talk with a community and ask, “What is your greatest need?” rather than me deciding from the outside.

Q. What are you hearing from folks about their greatest needs?

Certainly jobs. Infrastructure. We don’t necessarily have good grocery stores that are publicly accessible. Our transportation system is not always adequate if you have to rely on public transportation to get to work. Thirty percent of Buffalo residents do not have a car, which leaves a pretty big number of people depending on public transportation. (See statistics from the Partnership for Public Good here.) I have heard that even though there may be adequate access to insurance, it’s still difficult to find a physician. ... All of these things are interconnected.

Q. What about outside the city in pockets of rural poverty?

I can’t say the community health worker movement is not touching that, but it is focused on Buffalo. What’s nice is there are efforts to pay more attention to young people who will go and practice in those communities. Some medical schools have rural health tracks and there’s also in the application process a place where you can make that interest clear. There’s a push to try to get medical schools to pay attention to a broader range of students because we don’t always meet the needs of our communities.

Q. What efforts have you seen start to change the dynamics in the city?

Aside from the Community Health Worker Network. That’s my biggest impression because of people that are working at the grassroots effort, people of all walks of life. I’ve been very impressed by a number of individuals and small groups that are trying to make a difference in the community. Jericho Road is pretty darned inspiring. A place like Harvest House, which runs Good Neighbors Clinic – and the doctors that spend their time there – I find inspiring. At the same time, it’s frustrating that such a place is necessary. With the wealth in this country, I’m overwhelmed that we haven’t figured out a way to make sure everyone has access to health care. As for other places that aren’t necessarily directly tied to health care, the Matt Urban Center does amazing work. We talk about soup kitchens and stuff like that, but they know how to do it with dignity. It’s amazing how many groups, organizations and individuals are working hard to make a difference. They sometimes get overshadowed by these bigger, glitzier things like the waterfront. Even though the Buffalo Niagara Medical Corridor is a huge asset for many things, in the shadow of that is all this other stuff that might even be more important for the health of the community.


Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon

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