Mapping Out the Starting Point


When health disparities in urban populations are discussed at the University of Chicago Medical Center, it’s not an abstract, far-away concept. Only a few blocks west and south of the hospital campus are some of the poorest neighborhoods in Chicago, where nearly every health statistic one finds is shocking. Pick any measure – diabetes, heart disease, obesity, infant mortality, or violence – and the numbers in some South Side neighborhoods are closer to those found in developing countries than they are to more affluent North Side neighborhoods mere miles away. The problem is exacerbated by a decline in health services on the South Side of Chicago, from losing more than 2,000 hospital beds in the last decade to a sparse density of grocery stores and exercise facilities.

In response to this health crisis, the Medical Center launched the Urban Health Initiative to execute a multi-faceted campaign of patient care, education, and research. But an important first step in fixing the health disparities on the South Side of Chicago is measurement, obtaining updated and accurate statistics on the healthcare needs of the region and cataloging the resources already available. At the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics seminar series earlier last week, associate professor of obstetrics/gynecology and medicine Stacy Lindau updated the progress of the UHI’s measurement arm, the South Side Health and Vitality Studies.

The first aim of the SSHVS is to build a map – not of transportation routes, but of neighborhood assets. Recently, organizations such as the World Health Organization and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation have started to define an area’s health system as “intersectoral,” stretching beyond direct medical care to other aspects of the community that impact the population’s health. For the last two years, the Community Asset Mapping project of the SSHVS has sent out college and high school volunteers to measure assets such as grocery stores, gyms, daycare centers, government services, churches, and more on the South Side of Chicago. The fruits of those efforts are twofold: both a resource for the community and a baseline for UHI research on improving the broader infrastructure of the region, Lindau said.

“Has anyone ever described anywhere all the components of an intersectoral health system and how they’re working together? Has it ever been empirically evaluated or studied? The answer is no,” Lindau said. “But where are we starting to this? Here on the South Side of Chicago, where we’re mapping every single built asset in the primary service area of the University of Chicago…and trying to understand: if everybody’s in the health system, then what’s everybody’s role?”

So far, 11 of the 34 community areas that make up Chicago’s South Side have been mapped, and the information is already proving its value as the “highest-quality asset list for this region,” Lindau said. Compared to the most recent commercially-available resource guide, the mapping project found 4o percent more assets…and found that 30 percent of the resources listed in the commercial guide were no longer in existence. Unlike that flawed information, the mapping project’s data is available for free through a customizable map program on (one of many website domains the program has wisely snapped up for community outreach purposes) that allows visitors to search by asset-type and location for 16 different categories. Lindau also hopes to someday incorporate the information into electronic medical records, so that patients can take home a printout of their nearby health resources after a doctor’s appointment.

“You can’t do this on Yelp or Google,” Lindau said. “You can’t map places by disease or by need. I think we have something really special here.”

The baseline data collected in the first year also allowed the mapping researchers to re-visit the same areas and measure just how much assets change from year to year in these communities. The amount of flux in those six areas is startling; though the total number of assets barely budged, certain categories fluctuated wildly, with public services, schools/childcare, and industrial sites declining and religious and health services locations showing a net increase. When Lindau and her colleagues presented the data to neighborhood residents, they were very excited to finally have hard numbers.

“Several community members said you’re finally, with the University of Chicago stamp, telling us what we know,” Lindau said. “Now we can take this data with the University of Chicago logo on it and maybe the policymakers will pay more attention, and maybe the business owners will pay more attention.”

The central goal of the Urban Health Initiative – to make the South Side the healthiest urban area in the U.S. by 2025 – is stunningly ambitious, and will take many, many steps to reach. But a long journey can’t get started without a starting point, and the mapping project is making the initial measurements necessary to take those first steps in the right direction. To reinforce the point, Lindau quoted a former Medical Center employee – First Lady Michelle Obama, at a 2009 appearance:

“Communities are filled with assets that we need to better recognize and mobilize if we’re really going to make a difference.”

[Each academic year, the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics organizes a series of lunchtime seminars by physicians, biologists, economists, social scientists and other experts covering the biggest questions in health care and ethics. This year’s theme is “Health Disparities: Local, National, Global,” and the series was put together with the Urban Health Initiative, the Global Health Initiative, and Finding Answers. ScienceLife will carry regular coverage of this unique series, and video of the lectures will be posted when available.]

About Rob Mitchum (525 Articles)
Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.
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