By Michael Sullivan, Washington and Lee University (2018)
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 at 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. I visited 12 different primary care practices all over the city of Camden and collected patient satisfaction surveys. I walked 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 asked and recorded responses in Spanish. My team of interns was tasked with collecting 700 surveys by the end of the summer, and it felt like a daunting task.
“While its mission is broad, the Coalition focuses on implementing data-driven measures that lower cost and expand opportunities for better healthcare,” writes Michael Sullivan (W&L 2018). Pictured here with his Coalition intern cohort.
The uneasiness subsided quickly. For all the negative media attention that Camden receives, it is a rather small city; in both geography and population. With only 80,000 residents, the city occupies 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 in a few short weeks I was finished looking at my GPS for directions. I was able to see the revival efforts in Camden. My roommate Ram Raval was working for a business development non-profit seeking to create a healthier economy in the city of Camden. It has facilitated efforts such as the relocation of the Subaru National Headquarters into Camden. My peer Sneha Modi showed me 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. In her essay, my colleague, Tierney Wolegmuth, also mentions the importance of this effort for reinforcing the core mission of the Coalition for which we worked.
My most personal experiences with these efforts came from my own intern assignment with the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers seeking to improve the quality and access of healthcare for every resident. While its 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 relevant data. The other interns, including Tierney, and I spent 6 weeks in the lobbies of doctors’ offices with the survey. We asked about barriers to healthcare the patients encounter, the relationship of the doctor and the staff with the patient, and even questions about the level of food insecurity the patient experienced. Although most of my interactions with patients were brief, I was amazed at how easily and often people opened up about their health and personal life. While I had no background information about those I surveyed, and there was no way to know if specific 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 special opportunity to help give them a voice. I found that experience invaluable.
My Poverty 101 professor always emphasized the importance of building relationships with people for whom we 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 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 our 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.
This summer not only introduced me to the complex nature of creating equitable healthcare, but also how all aspects of a community are interrelated. The work that my fellow Shepherd interns were doing in other fields—whether Ram’s projects with an economic development firm or Sneha’s work with the Food Trust—all contributed to the greater well-being and capability of the city as a whole. For example, without access to proper nutrition, health outcomes can suffer. But, there could be economic barriers to grocery stores carrying fresh produce in the city. The cyclical nature of these problems require a multi-pronged approach to solving the issues affecting the community of Camden. By having organizations work together and coordinate efforts to alleviate poverty-related sufferings, we can do a greater good for Camden than any one group can do alone. 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.