By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
Change happens, but it doesn’t always happen fast – at least not in Milwaukee. Dr. Leonard Egede, who joined the Medical College of Wisconsin in 2017, noted that there’s a sense of hopelessness in Milwaukee, but he, for one, is not without hope.
Egede was recently appointed the endowed chair position for the ThriveOn Collaboration, a group comprised of the Medical College of Wisconsin, Royal Capital Group and the Greater Milwaukee Foundation. The group’s mission is to create an equitable, healthy and thriving community for all.
Egede, whose work focuses on health equity research, is a part of that mission.
Egede said that being named the endowed chair was really exciting. It speaks to where Milwaukee is in terms of addressing health equity, he said. African American philanthropists from the Greater Milwaukee area, recently lead a $2 million fundraising effort by the ThriveOn Collaboration to support Egede’s work as did the Herb Kohl Philanthropies.
Kevin Newell, president and CEO of Royal Capital Group, 701 N. Plankinton Ave., said the announcement spoke to the energy and overall objective of the ThriveOn Collaboration.
Egede is a national and international renowned leader, Newell said.
“He’s very creative, he’s very innovative and he’s very thoughtful about the approach and the process and very aggressive about trying to predict the outcomes and way we can improve the outcomes,” he said.
The endowed chair position is a symbol of prestige, Egede said, but it also provides resources and the ability to take risks. With the endowment funds, Egede and his team will be able to create community engagement activities, launch pilot studies and leverage those findings to receive funding.
When it comes to achieving health equity, there are three levels of influences that require attention, he said. The first level is health, the second level are the social determinants that affects a person’s health and the third are the structural factors such as policies.
Right now, a lot of the work is focused on health and health care, he said, but to create long lasting change, work needs to be done at the policy level.
Egede explained that early on, his work focused on what was driving the disease, the explanatory model, and now, he’s focused more on intervention.
“We’re beginning to recognize now that the problem is not the individual,” he said. “The problems are the individual’s environment.”
He continued, “My work and my team – we are very focused on social determinants of health because that’s the environment in which people live and then we’re actually beginning to ask questions about policies and structures that drive some of those disparities.”
A glance at Egede’s past work demonstrates that his overarching goal has always been to create a more equitable environment.
Early on in his career, he studied the connection between mental health and medical illnesses, specifically the link the between depression in people diagnosed with diabetes. The research showed that about 30% of people with diabetes had depression. Those findings lead to programs and eventually, the guidelines changed. Now, the diabetes guidelines have physicians screen for depression.
When he was in Charleston, Egede worked with veterans who had mental health issues. The stigma prevented people from seeking help, he said, so he created a program to evaluate people’s mental health using telemedicine.
The program demonstrated that people could be treated for depression or other mental health issues with telemedicine, and that it was just as good as seeing someone face-to-face, he explained. This program changed the landscape, he said.
Egede hopes to that his knowledge and experience will spur change in Milwaukee. ThriveOn Collaboration is not making a short-term commitment, it’s going to be here for the long haul, it’s making a generational commitment, he said.
“I want to be able to say that in five years, because of the work we’re doing, we see a change in health and wellness for the communities that we’re focusing on,” Egede said. “And not just treating disease but actually creating things that impact employment, that impact disability, that impact access to health care.”
He added that he’d like to start training the next generation of individuals, who understand the issues and who will carry the baton forward. He also wants to have dialogues about the real issues such as racism, discrimination, redlining and its impact on health.
There’s not a magic bullet, Egede said, but the group can commit to bringing about change and doing it holistically.
As Newell pointed out, there are two areas in Milwaukee that the collaboration is viewing as areas of opportunities for improvement. The first is to stop operating in silos and the second is to take the studies, create action plans and act on them.
“Everyone has a different perspective, even though they’re all standing in the same spot,” Newell said. “There’s a lot of goodwill and progress being had without our involvement. Our job is to help with the momentum, our job is to be a part of the solution, our job is to be completely engaged in ways that don’t always require us to be the leader.”
Egede explained that often times, minority communities are viewed with the deficit-based model and told that there’s something wrong with them. He wants to change that to a strength-based model, which asks communities what their strengths are, how they have survived, what they have learned and where they get their resilience.
At the top of Egede’s list is building hope.
“I think a major thing we need to pay attention to is how do we create hope,” Egede said. “How do we get people to actually have hope, because life without hope is challenging.”