Voices of Hennepin Healthcare: Rebecca Thomas

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Rebecca Thomas, an Elliot Park Neighborhood advocate, shares the importance of holistic and trusted programs that are guided by community conversations.

“I grew up in an area that was highly diverse with different racial, cultural, and religious backgrounds. I came from a low-income family and was surrounded by wealth disparities,” shares Rebecca Thomas, a licensed clinical social worker and the Interim Administrator at Elliot Park Neighborhood, Inc.

“I was drawn to the voices that you don’t typically hear, those who have to work extra hard to make ends meet. This drew me to the community organizing side of things, based on the desires of what people were explicitly telling me.”

Hennepin Healthcare recently launched a planning process to advance health equity within the healthcare system and entire region. A key element of this process revolves around the holistic service experience of the Downtown Minneapolis hospital, which happens to be located in Elliot Park and is the area’s largest employer and healthcare provider. Here, Rebecca shares her passion for the Elliot Park Neighborhood and her vision as to how a community-driven approach to future planning can improve patients’ and community members’ trust in healthcare.

With confidence, she asserts, “Hennepin Healthcare can be part of spearheading national changes,” serving “as a model for the rest of the country.”

Centering community

When reimagining the healthcare system, Rebecca recommends beginning the conversation with the simple question, “What can we do to meet your needs?” She explains, “I never wanted to step into a role where I was deciding what’s best for other people.” Instead, Rebecca envisions a healthcare system that centers the experiences of community members by listening to their stories, then placing their priorities at the forefront of strategic decisions, development, campus planning and how care is provided.

As a regional safety net hospital, Hennepin Healthcare’s hospital accepts all patients, regardless of insurance status or ability to pay. Despite its Elliot Park location, however, some community members still struggle to access services due to time and mobility constraints.

“How are you going to go to a doctor’s appointment when you’re working 80 hours a week?” Rebecca challenges. Even if some members can schedule time off work, they often cannot afford to miss the hourly pay to receive medical services. Additionally, many community members do not own cars and the public transportation schedule does not align with their availability. Or, due to other factors, clients lack the services they need to get to medical facilities.

Instead, Rebecca envisions responding to these challenges by developing a house call program. This will ensure that medical care shows up at patients’ doorsteps, alleviating the expectation of individuals to transport themselves to the hospital.

Building trust

Rebecca loves that Hennepin Healthcare serves such a broad demographic of people. She believes that those serving the region should reflect the cultural, racial and language preferences of community members. Rebecca stresses how important it is for doctors to speak the same language of the patient, as opposed to using translators, and truly listen to community needs. “I recognize that trust won’t be built in a day, week or even a year,” she explains. So consistent visibility in the community is imperative to heal the divide between community members and medical providers.

From research to education to treatment models, she desires that the perception of care be one of unity that celebrates the diversity of the Elliot Park region. “I want to see it as a community where we’re really supporting each other.”

Attending to the whole person

Three considerable challenges in the Elliot Park Neighborhood are poverty, mental health, and substance use disorders. When considering the state of a patient’s health, Rebecca redirects the focus from personal responsibility to systemic change by asking, “What outside factors are weighing on the individual?”

For example, while several grocery stores are within a one-mile distance of Elliot Park, they still may not be affordable or accessible to many in the community. This negatively impacts the health of individuals.

Another challenge in the community is the lack of education about health management. If older generations do not use the healthcare system, younger generations do not witness the importance of preventive well visits or routine dental care. Rebecca recommends this be taught in systems that youth already participate in, such as school and community recreation programs.

Still, Rebecca holds great, steadfast hope for the future of Elliot Park, knowing that Hennepin Healthcare is a vital resource for the community’s health, well-being and vibrancy.

Learn more about the planning process and sign up for monthly updates from Jennifer DeCubellis, CEO at hennepinhealthcare.org/ourfuture.

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