March 2011 Archives

Chicago Responds to the Disaster in Japan

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As we watch the images of devastation coming out of Japan, our hearts go out to all of those touched by last night's earthquake and tsunami there. Our thoughts are with the people of Japan and all those who have family, friends, or colleagues in Japan. For updates and information from the University, visit

In terms of local and national organizations, the WBEZ website is keeping a list.

Health Leads Seeks to Reform Healthcare

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By Annie Pei, Contributing Writer for the University Community Service Center Newsletter

A year after the health care bill's passing, questions still persist as to how existing health care services will weather a spike in demand. While the Congression Budget Office estimates that 32 million previously uninsured people will receive coverage by 2019, 23 million residents will remain uninsured. Politicians, health professionals, and social workers worry about modifying the current health care infrastructure to accommodate such a large influx of people.

Overall, many believe that the U.S. as a whole does not possess the resources to adapt to the new bill's demands. Therefore, new solutions are desperately sought to remedy the situation.

As policymakers work out details on a national level, an organization known as Health Leads has taken matters into their own hands. One of only a handful of universities that sponsor the program, the University of Chicago branch provides a local model that could impact national health care by showing health care providers a solution to serve the increasing number of patients.

Headed by fourth-year students Meredith Gage and Deanna Digitale, keen interest from students has transformed Health Leads Chicago into the second-largest organization on campus.

Despite Health Leads Chicago's operation on a local level, the branch still strives towards the goal held by the main organization: -integration into the health care system. Since the organization's beginnings, Health Leads has striven to convince the government that it should work closely with hospitals and clinics in order to increase the amount of services and patients treated in U.S. healthcare. To do so, Health Leads Chicago's student volunteers work alongside physicians in clinics and gather medical and social needs data from visitors.

"Our goal isn't just to provide health care services," Digitale explains, "Ultimately, we want full integration into the health care system. Everything we do is working towards making a national impact, and the model we choose to work with is to prove that organizations like Health Leads can create solutions to better the system."

Health Leads currently operates from four clinics in Chicago: the Chicago Family Health Center, Friend Family Health Center, Comer Children's Hospital, and La Rabeida. While all four clinics run independent of the University, Health Leads' has managed to significantly increase its presence in all four clinics. In the Comer Children's Hospital located on the University's campus, volunteers operate in the hospital's emergency department. In La Rabeida, they offer long-term outpatient care, so while patients may not need to stay overnight they can enter a clinic during the day to see a Health Leads volunteer.

For the two family Health Centers, volunteers shadow physicians. The close interactions between the clinics and volunteers mirror Health Leads' gradual integration into the health care system via a system of close relations with medical professionals.

But the student volunteers' duties extend beyond the area of medicine. As Comer Hospital paediatrician Dr. Lisa McQueen says, Health Leads' volunteers often support clients by providing them with other services that medical professionals may not be able to deliver.

"Let's say that you bring your child here for an asthma problem. We diagnose them and provide them with medicine. But let's say that the primary cause of your child's asthma is your house' faulty ventilation system," she says. "As a paediatrician, that's out of my domain. What we do is refer that patient to a Health Leads volunteer so they can get in touch with a housing service that deals with that problem."

For health professionals at the clinics, the additional services Health Leads provides cannot be more useful. Flooded with patients, Comer Children's Hospital had been struggling to provide primary care for the huge number of patients passing through their emergency department. But Health Leads' integration into the clinics has provided physicians with more breathing room by allowing doctors to prioritize among the patients while ensuring that all clients are served.

"We [at Comer] see about 33 thousand patients in the emergency department per year, and a lot of those cases are very intense, such as sexual abuse, psychotic breakdowns, and assault," Dr. McQueen explains, "Health Leads allows us to prioritize and see those extreme cases by taking care of patients who have less intense problems. So what you see is an allocation of resources to meet everyone's needs."

For the volunteers, Health Leads' foray beyond the health care sector distinguishes them from any other medical organization. Trained to search for housing, employment, childcare, and other services in order to help clients, Health Leads volunteers learn about social work in addition to the medical profession.

"I actually decided to join Health Leads after taking Mind [a class part of the Core requirements]," says Cristina Perez, a fourth year student, "The course talked extensively about the connection between mind and the physical body. So, when I first researched Health Leads, their goal to 'break the link between poverty and poor health' really spoke to me."

Marianne Seneczko, a first year pre-med student, also sought the same interactive contact with patients that will pave the way towards a medical career.

"I joined Health Leads partly because of the hands-on experience I'd have with medicine, but also because [the organization] doesn't isolate itself to dealing with medical situations," maintains Seneczko, "If you want to be a doctor, it's important to understand the other factors that also affect people's health so you can better help them."

However, some patients do hold qualms against seeing a volunteer as opposed to an actual physician. Health Leads tries to circumvent patients' hesitancy by encouraging their volunteers to call past patients and follow up on the status of their problems. When asked how patients responded to having a student volunteer address their problems, Seneczko responds positively, "It's a little tricky at first because when I call to follow up with past patients, they often don't know who's calling so they get a bit hostile. But after a few times, they start to warm up to you and then you can see that they're really grateful for your help."

By attaching themselves to clinics, Health Leads can gradually consolidate their place in the health care system. Health Leads places a huge emphasis on data collection in order to present their findings to the government one day to showcase the

As for expansion plans, Gage elaborates on why, for now, Health Leads will remain exclusive to the current universities from which it operates. "Right now, we want to show the government how organizations like Health Leads have the resources and therefore need to operate as part of the health care system."

With health services stretched beyond their limits, Health Leads looks to alleviate the stressed medical and social care system, thereby establishing their influence and building a reputation within U.S. health care.

UCSC accepts story submissions from contributing writers that take a timely national issue and examine it in the local perspective. To join the pool, or learn more, visit

Happy 174th, Chicago!

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Chicago celebrates its 174th birthday today. Wishing the City that Works the best!

Celebrate this afternoon at the Chicago History Museum