At 7 p.m. each night in New York City, residents stand on patios, on rooftops and in doorways to clap and cheer wildly for the individuals working at the hospitals in their neighborhoods. If this were happening in Trenton, I would add to the shout-out recipients one non-hospital – the Trenton Health Team (THT), an organization whose work is healthcare, but generally is under the radar screen and rarely on the television screen. Its healthcare role in Trenton is characterized by bland terms like “partnership,” “coordination,” “integration” and “collaboration.”
In my opinion, an inspiring word to describe its work is “transformation.” Trenton Health Team, for the past decade, has worked to advance the health and well being of Trenton residents. Working closely with community and healthcare partners and looking at the big picture, THT uses a data-driven approach to advance a vision of a healthier city.
THT comprises professionals of various backgrounds (communications, social work, public health, community health, emergency medicine, information technology), whose work makes it possible for all the other healthcare providers in the city to save lives. In the current COVID-19 crisis, THT has brought together the right people to implement the following: a walk-in (rather than drive-thru) COVID-19 testing site in Trenton; a health data exchange system that integrates COVID community-based testing and prescribed treatment data; and a strategy for communicating health information to a segment of the population lacking the language skills and/or technology to receive important COVID-19 directives.
THT, celebrating its 10th birthday this year, came onto my radar screen thanks to a longtime friend, Greg Paulson, the executive director of THT, since 2015. A Princeton University alumnus, who became hooked on emergency medicine through his work with the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad, Greg is a paramedic who earned his Master’s in Science in emergency services management at Drexel University. During his years as an emergency department patient care technician and field paramedic, Greg helped patients who needed emergency care, as well as those who sought refuge in the emergency room when they actually needed accessible primary care and social services.
“At one time, I had thought about becoming a doctor, but I was seeing the need for a more integrative approach to providing healthcare. … The opportunity to work with the THT intrigued me because it offered a chance to work on the healthcare problems and experiences I had as a paramedic, in an environment where healthcare institutions are collaborating to restore health to the community they serve,” Greg said.
THT’s founding mission is ensuring health equity for Trenton residents by looking at all the factors contributing to good health. The prescription for accomplishing this is a comprehensive network of community partnerships.
According to the THT website, THT was founded to “improve the well-being of greater Trenton by partnering with the community to expand access to high-quality, coordinated, cost-effective healthcare and addressing housing quality, food security, neighborhood safety, education and social inequities inextricably linked to poor health outcomes.” As a non-profit collaboration, TNT comprises Trenton’s two hospitals, St. Francis Medical Center and Capital Health; the Henry J. Austin Health Center; and the City of Trenton Department of Health and Human Services.
“We knock down silos. … We get the right people in the room. We have created an infrastructure of shared decision making for groups that don’t normally interact,” Greg said.
This infrastructure of coordination and partnership and shared decision making has proven to be particularly invaluable during the current COVID-19 crisis. “We have been working with community groups, with faith leaders, with the health care and governmental organizations for a long time. Our in-person meetings became weekly virtual meetings when the COVID crisis began. Because of this, we were able to advocate successfully for a walk-thru testing facility, so crucial because many in the city have no access to cars,” he said.
But the prospect of community testing raised a new challenge – COVID patient data collection and coordination. Five years ago, THT established the Trenton Health Information Exchange (Trenton HIE), one of six HIEs in New Jersey providing healthcare professionals access to integrated patient records in real-time to support treatment decisions and strategies.
“Thanks to the HIE, the data system that combines all separate hospital data, primary care data, in one place, we have been able to create a system to support community testing and follow-up treatment,” Greg said.
The third COVID-related area where the THT infrastructure has been especially useful is in messaging to the community.
“We are used to adapting our health care communication to the reality faced by many Trenton residents” – a reality where people do not have their own washer and drier, may not know English, may lack computer access, may be living in small quarters with several other people or living homeless on the street. “Many residents still believed that COVID was a problem someplace else. So we have three simple messages: COVID is here and dangerous; stay far apart from one another; wear a mask,” Greg said.
“We had the communications infrastructure in place. We have been working with community leaders of churches and other social service and neighborhood groups for a long time, who have been working with us to develop the appropriate vehicles to spread the message,” and in doing so hopefully thwarting the spread of the virus, he said.
Since no one can wish THT a happy birthday in person, I suggest a virtual, but very personal, birthday gift – a photo taken for the THT’s “Why I Like Trenton 2020” photo contest. The initiative celebrates Trenton’s resilience and strong sense of community throughout the years – and particularly now as the residents confront the threat of COVID-19. THT would like new original photos taken in Trenton that showcase “our community, our courage, and our caring for one another. We are looking for photos that show how we are coping during this uncertain time: walking along the canal or through a park, working from home, learning from home, enjoying our family and pets, helping each other as first responders and volunteers.”