Community Leadership Award Honorable Mention: John O'Brien

Building new relationships

As the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act moves forward, healthcare providers will need to pay increasing attention to prevention. John O'Brien, president and CEO of UMass Memorial Health Care in Worcester, Mass., believes that means building stronger ties with institutions' surrounding communities—something he has been doing for the past several years, with a particular emphasis on reaching out to youth.

In Worcester, New England's second-largest city, the 2010 U.S. Census showed that nearly 30% of children live below the poverty line, about double the state average. To improve their health outcomes, the system has partnered with Worcester Public Schools on healthy eating and nutrition education.

Healthcare reform is “increasingly going to put the burden on providers to not only meet the immediate needs of people, but also look further upstream,” says O'Brien, 62, an honorable mention for Modern Healthcare's inaugural Community Leadership Award program. “When I go to a public school here and see the percentage of kids who are overweight or obese, the percentage of kids with asthma—we're going to be fully at-risk for that child's health in the next couple of years.”

O'Brien says healthcare institutions will need to build public-private partnerships and work with schools, community groups and other stakeholders, as he and UMass Memorial have been doing in Worcester. “It's truly going to take a paradigm shift if we're going to start bending these (health indicators) numbers,” he says. “We see this work as trying not only to fulfill our mission for the community, but also tied to our financial future, as well.”

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UMass has taken a step to improve the financial future of youth and lift them out of poverty—among the leading socioeconomic determinants of health—through the citywide Building Brighter Futures With Youth Campaign, which has provided jobs to 400 and skills and pre-employment training to many more during the past seven years.

“I ran many focus groups with young people, and the No. 1 thing they were telling us is, 'There's nothing to do in the summer. We're hanging out on street corners. You could really make a difference by giving us job opportunities,' ” O'Brien says.

Instead of falling prey to the temptations of the street corner and possibly becoming victims of violence—increasing healthcare costs and negatively impacting neighborhoods—those youths upon reaching adulthood are leading productive lives. Some of them are even working for UMass as nurses, radiology technicians and in other roles, O'Brien says.



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