CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – As families around the world lived through the rise and spread of COVID-19, countless Illinois communities faced a frightening reality: they were not equipped to mount the complex public health response the situation required. Many community leaders, medical centers, and school administrators found themselves trying to navigate a crisis using tools and policies that were out of touch with modern public health needs and strained by the overwhelming burden generated by a once-in-a-century global pandemic.  

The lack of a consistent public health infrastructure was compounded by a public that was often confused by the complicated science behind the pandemic, sometimes reluctant to trust those in positions of authority, or unable to access essential information to inform medical and lifestyle decisions for themselves and their families. While it would be easy to dismiss the challenges presented by COVID-19 as unique, University of Illinois Extension researchers and public health experts believe that many Illinois communities have faced these systemic challenges for decades.

“According to the 2020 Scorecard on State Health System Performance, Illinois ranks below average in access and affordability, prevention and treatment, and disparity, compared to other states in the U.S.” says Shelly Nickols-Richardson, associate dean and director of Illinois Extension. “As the largest statewide network for research-based knowledge and information, Illinois Extension can contribute in meaningful ways to improving these performance indicators and promoting positive health outcomes for Illinois residents.”

To provide leadership and resources in the crusade to address health inequities, Illinois Extension has launched a new core program area, Integrated Health Disparities. Resource development and public engagement efforts will focus on the priority issues of health promotion and education, healthcare access, behavioral health, and community well-being.

Social and structural health inequities are associated with adverse health outcomes, higher healthcare costs, and lost wages and productivity, which add economic burden to communities. Additionally, many of these challenges have strong connections to issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Illinois Extension will bring a multi-disciplinary focus to this work, and Nickols-Richardson has tapped a veteran chronic disease and health intervention researcher to lead the initiative.

Margarita Teran-Garcia has a deep understanding of obesity and other nutrition-related diseases, especially among low-income and Hispanic-heritage families. She has a proven track record in translating evidence-based science into impactful programming and outreach efforts. Her overarching research interests examine the connection between the biological and psychological dimensions that underpin successful health programs.  

“I look forward to this opportunity to build a more vigorous bridge between Illinois Extension and the diverse communities we serve,” says Teran, the newly named assistant dean and program leader for Integrated Health Disparities. “Evidence tells us that tailored interventions improve the success and sustainability of community programs, promoting a larger culture of health and wellness. Together, we can successfully narrow the gap of health inequities and move toward a more equitable and healthy society.”

Early efforts of Teran’s team will be to develop and translate curriculum materials for audiences with limited English proficiency. Longer-term goals will focus on strengthening partnerships with Carle-Illinois College of Medicine and other healthcare scientists to translate evidence-based research into community-based education. With a targeted focus on vulnerable populations in Illinois, this team hopes to better understand the widening gap between rural and urban healthcare system and advocate for solutions that prioritize the needs of underrepresented communities.

This new Illinois Extension initiative aligns with national Cooperative Extension Service goals surrounding health equity policy reform. Cooperative Extension is well known for its work to build health literacy, but by leveraging strategic partnerships with others, Extension hopes to drive much-needed systemic change that influences factors like equitable access and quality of care.

“Through its work to address health disparities, Cooperative Extension can help ensure that all people have the opportunity to experience lifelong health and well-being,” says Roger Rennekamp, Extension Health Director for the national Cooperative Extension System. “But doing so involves identifying the individuals and groups experiencing suboptimal health outcomes and developing plans for addressing the specific factors that put them at a disadvantage. When people are healthy, we reduce healthcare costs and ensure that all people can contribute to the social progress and economic prosperity of the state and nation.”

Illinois Extension maintains a longstanding commitment to addressing both local needs and global challenges. Extension’s statewide network of educators help local stakeholders respond to evolving and emerging needs that result in measurable progress for communities, families, and businesses.

SOURCES: Shelly Nickols-Richardson, Associate Dean and Director of Illinois Extension; Margarita Teran-Garcia, Assistant Dean and Program Leader for Integrated Health Disparities, Illinois Extension

WRITER: Samantha Koon, Director of Communications, Illinois Extension

ABOUT EXTENSION: Illinois Extension leads public outreach for University of Illinois by translating research into action plans that allow Illinois families, businesses, and community leaders to solve problems, make informed decisions, and adapt to changes and opportunities.