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West Side United Aims to Improve Health, Life Expectancy of Residents

(Courtesy of West Side United)(Courtesy of West Side United)

West Garfield Park residents have a life expectancy of 69 years. In the Loop, just 6 miles away, the average life expectancy is 85 years.

A coalition of health care institutions and professionals, West Side residents and civic leaders hopes to cut in half that 16-year gap by 2030.

They’ve been working to identify obstacles to health equity since January 2017, but this week, the group officially launched as West Side United.

“We’re taking a whole new approach to addressing historical inequities on Chicago’s West Side, including social and structural determinants of health, things like structural racism, poverty and educational gaps,” said David Ansell, senior vice president of community health equity at Rush University Medical Center, in a video published Tuesday.

Darlene Hightower, associate vice president of community engagement and practice at Rush University Medical Center, emphasizes the importance of addressing education, housing and employment when considering the medical and social determinants, or causes, of poor health. She compares it to an iceberg.

While physical health may appear as the tip of an iceberg, “there’s all this stuff going on underneath the water that’s bringing me the outcome at the top, and if we can’t get below and get to those things, then we’re never going to get the life expectancy outcomes that we want to see,” she said.

“I’m hoping people will be patient with us because this is going to take some work. This isn’t going to happen overnight.”

–Darlene Hightower


More than 480,000 people live in nine West Side neighborhoods: West Garfield Park, Austin, East Garfield Park, Humboldt Park, Lower West Side, Near West Side, West Town, North Lawndale and South Lawndale. These residents experience chronic diseases like diabetes, asthma, hypertension and infant mortality at rates much higher than the national average.

2017 survey by Sinai Urban Health Institute found more than 40 percent of men and nearly 50 percent of women in South Lawndale reported being in fair or poor general health. Nationally, that figure was about 12 percent.

On Wednesday morning, West Side United participants provided an update on their progress and announced their goals for 2018, which fall into four areas: health and health care, neighborhood and physical environment, economic vitality and education.

Among the group’s health care goals this year are expanding its West Side ConnectED program that screens patients and connects them to social service providers, and pilot projects to hire community health workers who will see patients in community spaces.

As part of the effort to address neighborhood and physical environments, West Side United will organize an Impact Investing Fund to invest a minimum of $2.5 million in 2018 in critical areas, such as housing and healthy food access.

Debra Wesley, a self-described “product of the West Side” who now lives on the South Side, said access to healthy food is crucial. “People shop at gas stations. There’s nothing healthy at the gas station, but that’s the option. It’s unacceptable. It’s completely unacceptable, and it’s unacceptable here,” said Wesley, who is the president of Sinai Community Institute and executive vice president for community health reach at Sinai Health System. “Go to the grocery stores, look at the dates, look at the preservatives. Our kids should not be eating all this. They need healthy food.”

In addition to community members, nonprofits and government partners, West Side United is made up of six health systems that collectively hire nearly 6,000 employees annually and spend roughly $2.8 billion on supplies and services. To help build economic vitality on the West Side, the health systems plan to hire more West Side residents, including people who have barriers to employment, such as criminal records and long-term unemployment.

“This isn’t just about entry-level (jobs). We want to see our folks thrive. We want to see folks not just make a living wage, but to make some money because we know those things ultimately impact the overall health and well-being of individuals and families,” said Hightower.

In addition, the six health systems plan to support local business through increased local purchasing and technical assistance, and develop a small business accelerator grant pool with $100,000 this year.

West Side United also wants to increase the number of paid high school summer internships and college apprenticeships, “with the ultimate goal to connect all interested West Side students with enriching educational and pre-professional experience,” said Hightower.

A year from now she hopes to have “tangible evidence” of success on these initiatives. “I’m hoping I can look back (on 2018) and say the health institutions have hired 250 people. The health institutions opened up high school internships or college apprenticeships to 500 more kids,” she said.

While Hightower says she’s proud of the work that’s been done thus far, she knows there’s more work to be done to change the inequities developed over generations. “I’m hoping people will be patient with us because this is going to take some work,” she said. “This isn’t going to happen overnight.”

Contact Kristen Thometz: @kristenthometz | kthometz@wttw.com | (773) 509-5452


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