A Map to Health, Happiness and Long Life

Michael Diamond (r.), here with other members of Northwestern's McCormick faculty, works hard to develop methods of ensuring the health of people at home and around the world.

Michael Diamond’s healthcare debate is a lot simpler than the one in Washington. For him, it boils down to one main question: how do we get available services to people right here at home?

“One of the biggest problems in Chicago is the tremendous disparity in health, not only in terms of outcomes, but also in terms of access,” said Diamond, who is an adjunct professor of biomedical engineering at Northwestern University. His solution to the access problem?

Community health asset mapping.

Though it might sound like jargon, this is actually a simple term: locating and recording the sum total of a community’s health resources.

“It’s not clear where people can go to access their health information,” Diamond said. Many people, especially those of lower socioeconomic status, are not only unsure about where to go on a cash basis or to use Medicaid: they are unsure about where to go at all.

Asset mapping has the potential to provide that information by putting it into a single, accessible database, available to all users. At least, that’s the goal.

Right now Diamond is focusing on two pilot areas in Chicago: Albany Park and Austin.

With Northwestern students’ help and the use of geo-coding, a process whereby he plugs address information into a database, Diamond is slowly but surely building a picture of the combined community resources in these neighborhoods.

Heather Polonsky, an incoming senior and Global Health minor at Northwestern, has been working with Diamond for two years now and has taken an active role in the project.

“It’s about raising awareness about resources that already exist rather than creating new resources,” said Polonsky, who worked in Albany Park to catalogue not only medical offices and hospitals but also grocery stores and pharmacies. Anything with bearing on community well being was recorded.

Polonsky also created a survey, to be distributed this fall at locations belonging to Healthy Albany Park, a community coalition. Its intention is to find out how community members use their services, satisfaction with those services, what they perceive as the most pressing issues in the neighborhood and how they meet a broad variety of health needs.

“Instead of a top-down approach, it’s more of a bottom-up,” explained Polonsky, who said that she’s enjoyed working with Diamond and was glad for a chance to apply what she’d learned in class.

As President of World Resources Chicago, a consulting firm that helps businesses and organizations respond to global challenges and opportunities, and the 2011 recipient of the Institute of Medicine of Chicago’s Public Service Award, Diamond is uniquely suited to combining community and medicine into a functioning whole.

The success of his projects so far relies largely on his cooperation with students, medical professionals, and community and citywide coalitions.

“Michael Diamond has done a tremendous job of organizing and leading numerous constituencies and groups of individuals towards wellness,” said James Galloway, Assistant US Surgeon General.  Through his work with Building a Healthier Chicago, a group dedicated to improving health citywide, Galloway has had ample time to assess Diamond’s contributions.

“Our work has been to expand great work throughout Chicago whenever we see it,” Galloway said, adding that Diamond has been crucial to these endeavors.  “We’ve been pleased to work with him and assist whenever we can.”

Diamond’s success is also a product of his approach.

“In addition to the technology, we have to remember the human element,” Diamond said. “The technology is there to help humans, has to be used by humans, and maintained by humans.”

In other words, if it isn’t working for people, then it isn’t working at all.

Someday, Diamond hopes to have a fully functioning system that will allow people to see the full picture of their health choices. Ideally, this will encourage people to get regular checkups instead of just going to emergency rooms in a crisis, to take their dental health seriously, to eat more nutritiously and exercise, and to fully engage with the health of their families and community as a whole.

Until then, and almost certainly after, Diamond’s work continues.

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