Growing the number of health care professionals in the state, reducing health disparities, improving education and making economically sound development choices—all are goals that can be tackled more effectively through teamwork. Through the Institute for Community-Based Research, a multi-organizational collaborative of academic researchers, students and nonprofit leaders, the University of Mississippi’s Center for Population Studies is providing assessment, evaluation and developmental guidance for a portfolio of programs directed at supporting Mississippi.
“Our role is to help with assessment and evaluation—such as secondary data, health statistics and population statistics—and beyond that, to help our partners design and redesign programs to pursue innovations and to think critically about the challenges they are facing,” said John J. Green, director of the Center for Population Studies and associate professor of sociology. “We’re not just evaluating a program at the end; we’re working together throughout the process.”
One of the institute’s programs, New Pathways to Health, aims to address health disparities in the Mississippi Delta though community education and by inspiring young people to pursue careers in health care. The program responds to the needs of the state, including shortages in health care providers and the low number of physicians and nurses per capita. Through the program’s youth component led by the Tri-County Workforce Alliance, middle school students participate in workshops to expand their understanding of the predominant health conditions in their communities. High school students complete a health mentorship program and high school seniors are eligible to complete a Certified Nursing Assistant program. Evaluations from two years of programming have shown substantial success: students have improved test scores, expressed motivation to succeed in school, and learned ways to improve their own health and act as positive influences for friends and family.
“The idea behind the New Pathways program is linking education and workforce development with health outcomes,” Green said. “We started with the perspective of knowing there are problems within the educational systems in terms of academic performance or graduation rates, and knowing that there’s also a broader nursing and health care shortage. The big picture idea is that we would like to see more graduates who are pursuing health care education and careers in Mississippi.”
New Pathways to Health also aims to improve health care by providing innovative training opportunities for those already on the road to becoming health professionals. The program offers a unique form of nursing clinical training through the Mississippi Office of Nursing Workforce. In the program, students are placed in Dedicated Education Units, or DEUs. Because many nurses cite the quality of their field placements as a major determining factor in where they will eventually practice the nursing profession, the DEU model aims to provide a more positive, supportive and collegial environment.
“The idea behind a Dedicated Education Unit is to provide a much more positive, supportive environment so that the student leaves it not only better educated but also wanting to work there,” Green said. “This is the first time a Dedicated Education Unit has been offered in the Delta region.”
A sustainable approach, the DEU model can also benefit the region by reducing the costs of training new hires.
“Research shows that once DEUs are adopted, they actually are cost-neutral or even create savings,” he said. “Our approach is to determine how we can develop new practices so that in three to five years, they could actually sustain themselves.”
We’re trying to help the health care professionals, the social service professionals, the educators to say, ‘How can we provide a supportive environment for the people we serve, and as a result, at least reduce the stressors a little bit?’”
New Pathways to Health is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and is a collaborative partnership between the Center for Population Studies, the Aaron E. Henry Community Health Services Center, the Center for Community and Economic Development, Coahoma County Higher Education Center, Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi, Dreyfus Health Foundation, Mississippi Office of Nursing Workforce and the Tri-County Workforce Alliance.
A second institute partnership is geared toward finding more productive ways to address the problem of preterm births in Mississippi. Data show that there are racial disparities in the rates of preterm births as well as fluctuations by age and income.
In partnership with Women and Children Health Initiatives and the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi, with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Center for Population Studies conducted community dialogue sessions to obtain qualitative data from nurses, social workers, nutritionists, educators and others who work with women at risk of having preterm births or babies with poor birth outcomes. Part of an initiative called Right! from the Start, the dialogue sessions identified gaps in resources and an unproductive tendency to frame discussions about birth outcomes on individual responsibility rather than on providing resources and services to mitigate negative outcomes. As a result, a follow-up dialogue session featured panels on how to reduce social stressors, provide nutrition education and support breastfeeding.
“Instead of just looking at data and saying the rates are bad, we want to engage people in conversations about what is currently being done and what resources exist,” Green said. “We also want to determine how we can work together across organizations to try to impact this. We’re trying to help the health care professionals, the social service professionals, the educators to say, ‘How can we provide a supportive environment for the people we serve, and as a result, at least reduce the stressors a little bit?'”
The overall focus of the Center for Population Studies is education, outreach and research related to population issues. The center houses the State Data Center of Mississippi, which allows it to provide a unique set of services to the Institute for Community-Based Research. The center also provides technical assistance to researchers, policymakers and other users of state census data. Additionally, it hosts an annual meeting to help local and regional planning and development groups make strategic use of the state’s data for business planning and other purposes.
Through internships, assistantships and class projects, graduate and undergraduate students work in the Center for Population Studies. A summer Honors College course focusing on population health and health professions allows students to be exposed to an interdisciplinary, real-world perspective on health.
Although Green’s work has led him to locations as diverse as Jamaica, the Pacific Islands, China, South Africa and Northern Ireland, his work in Mississippi is paramount.
“I definitely think about the work that I do as being place-driven. Thinking statewide about issues such as education, health and economic development—that’s really exciting. I want to be able to say, at the end of the day, that hopefully, this work contributed to Mississippi.”