Researchers with the Whole Communities–Whole Health initiative are bridging the gap between health science and real-world change by welcoming community members as partners every step of the way.
By Caren George
Communications and Marketing Manager
Whole Communities Whole Health
Center for Health Communication
The University of Texas at Austin
At the center of Whole Communities-Whole Health is a simple but far-reaching ambition: radically close the gap between the most cutting edge health-related science and technology and the most vulnerable members of the Central Texas community. And do so in a way that is intrinsically collaborative rather than top-down.
“We stand at a crossroads in history where there is an unprecedented level of digital data being acquired all around us,” says Dr. David Schnyer, Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at The University of Texas at Austin and Chair of the Organizing Committee for Whole Communities–Whole Health. “We have also begun to crack the code on the most complex aspects of our biology by examining how the changing world around us interacts with our DNA to shape our health and development.”
The problem, says Schnyer and his colleagues, is that the latest advances in health, environmental, and behavioral science are often out of reach for the people who could best put that information to use. Thus Whole Communities–Whole Health. It is one of UT Austin’s Bridging Barriers Grand Challenge initiatives, which are designed to bring together researchers and staff from multiple disciplines to address some of the toughest questions facing humanity.
The challenge that Whole Communities-Whole Health is taking on is to better understand, and more effectively influence, both the positive and negative factors that affect whether children flourish.
“When we talk about whole health, we aren’t just focusing on physical wellbeing. We have to look all the things that can support a thriving community. As a mother of two children, I understand that there are so many factors that come into play—social and family relationships, education, access to recreational space, air and water quality, mental health—the list could go on and on,” explains Dr. Darla Castelli, Professor of Kinesiology and Health Education and Chair of the Community Engagement Core Team for Whole Communities–Whole Health.
Whole Communities–Whole Health is launching from the premise that the best way to make a difference, when dealing with so much complexity, is to involve the people who know the landscape best: members of the community.
“More and more, academic institutions are called to connect the search for knowledge and training of scholars with generating solutions and determining impact. With this call comes the opportunity to reimagine how the people we are learning about, become the people we are learning with,” explains Dr. Lourdes Rodríguez, Director of the Center for Place-Based Initiatives at Dell Medical School. “To do so, we need to remind ourselves that everyone is an expert in their own experience. In order to get a full picture of all the factors that affect health, we need to welcome community members as contributing scientists at the same time that we put our data at the service of problem solving.”
A foundational part of the science-community partnership is the Community Strategy Team, a group of local leaders who provide insight and feedback to the research team. They help guide the process of developing long-term relationships with organizations and community leaders who are already working to address health disparities in Central Texas. Once partnerships are in place, the joint team will work in tandem to develop a long-range study that fits the needs and interests of the community.
This flyer is being shared with potential partnering organizations as the team develops relationships in the community.
A key component of the Whole Communities–Whole Health plan pushes the community-engagement envelope even further. An innovative, user-friendly dashboard will allow families to interact with their own health data in real time, so they can learn about their health alongside researchers.
“I’ve always tried to get important information back to community partners at the end of a project, but the idea of sharing data in real time with community members is a huge step forward in that kind of collaboration,” says Dr. Michael Mackert, Director of the Center for Health Communication.
As complex results are shared in a practical way, families will be able to turn information into action. What’s more, the resulting portrait of what helps strengthen resilient communities will not be kept under lock and key. The information will be shared. Community organizations will be able to use the study’s findings to create policies and programs that reflect the lived experiences of the families they serve, affecting sustainable change over the long haul.
“The Bridging Barriers research grand challenges program brings together the best expertise and innovative ideas across the UT campus to tackle the most pressing challenges of our time. Helping Central Texas families thrive in the face of adversity–by creating a new research paradigm that gives families both the latest technology and the power to learn about themselves and their environments–truly embodies the spirit of our public research university,” adds Dr. Jennifer Lyon Gardner, Associate Vice President for Research.