UMD Students Design New Prince George’s County Health Center
A new “Fearless Ideas” course led by School of Public Health faculty is turning a group of 15 UMD undergraduate students into researchers, innovators and entrepreneurs tasked with reimagining our broken healthcare system.
Redesigning Health Care – Developing a Clinic to Meet Community Needs (HLSA484), co-taught by Health Services Administration Professor and Chair Luisa Franzini, Professor Stephen B. Thomas, and Assistant Professor Dylan Roby, is the School of Public Health’s first Fearless Ideas Course. Imagined by the Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and open to all UMD students, these courses push students to think like innovators and come up with unexpected solutions to tough problems in different fields and disciplines.
“Our students have been spending all semester learning about ‘design thinking’—an innovation process where you start with a problem and work your way into a solution, and you bring all the lessons from the textbooks into the real world,” Dr. Thomas said.
Central to the course is the Catholic Charities-Susan D. Mona Center project, also a collaboration with the SPH Maryland Center for Health Equity, now under construction in Temple Hills, Md. The center will house a medical and dental clinic, as well as a wellness center that will be available to the people of southern Prince George’s County, regardless of their ability to pay.
As part of the course’s aim to teach students to understand health problems in vulnerable populations and apply them in generating systemic health solutions, students and faculty visited Temple Hills to interview local residents. The data gathered from their interviews will inform proposals that students will present to Mona Center stakeholders.
The first step of design thinking in the course, Dr. Thomas said, is to develop empathy for the Temple Hills community by having one-on-one conversations with neighborhood residents in their everyday settings, such as working, grocery shopping, or waiting for the bus. In their visit to Temple Hills, students broke off into pairs and ventured into the community to gather firsthand accounts about residents’ quality of life.
Encountering the reality of health disparities through people you meet face-to-face is a humbling experience, said Allison Vilchinsky, a public health science student in the Redesigning Health Care course.
“I was very surprised at how willingly community members opened up to us about their experiences with the healthcare system and their struggles to maintain personal wellness,” she said. “I think it shows that we are really all the same underneath it all; we all just want to be heard."
Active listening is one of the most important skills being taught in the class, Dr. Thomas said. By listening, students will attempt to bridge the gap between wealthy and low-income communities and design a clinic that is tailored to the community’s specific needs.
Through their interviews, the students identified problems related to health disparities, food access and pedestrian safety. Many residents from the community voiced concerns about the absence of sidewalks, the high cost of medical visits, and the high ratio of liquor stores to grocery stores in the area.
River Brooke Williams, also a public health science major, was expecting to learn more about the lack of clinics and access to health in the area. But she also encountered negative attitudes toward health care in general.
“A lot of people said that they were afraid of going to the doctor because they didn’t want to hear bad news,” Williams said.
As students prepared for their visit to the Mona Center, they tried to think of open-ended interview questions that would allow residents to share their stories, said fellow student Steve Chen, who’s double-majoring in global health and biological sciences.
“Being able to observe communities that have been affected historically by health disparities, and to speak with residents, puts what we learn in the academic setting into context,” Chen said. “In class, we often talk about how health and wellbeing is affected by the built environment. In Temple Hills, we were able to hear from community members about challenges such as the lack of affordable food options or places to exercise, and their impact on health.”
Formerly a Joe Theismann’s Restaurant, the building that will house the Susan D. Mona Center will include a primary health clinic, a dental clinic, a legal network, immigration legal services, and nutrition services, among other resources. A plot of land next the building’s parking lot will serve as a community “healing garden.”
The Susan D. Mona Center is a collaboration among Catholic Charities, the University of Maryland Center for Health Equity and Doctor’s Community Hospital.