Engaging Community Members and Educating the Public
Many of CHET’s research projects, like ChicagoCHEC, are community-centered and host annual Community Forums. Additionally, we host and participate in multiple standalone activities that promote community engagement and information sharing with the public.
These activities include our monthly CHETchat Spotlight Series, our SkinnyTrees podcast, and other health equity related events. Future events will incorporate the voices of community advocates, policymakers, and researchers in pursuit of solutions to the same health equity issues, but from different angles.
CHETchat Spotlight Series highlights the equity work of our invited speakers and fosters dialogues and ideas about the ways that attendees can engage in work that promotes health equity. These events are open to the entire Northwestern community and the public.
SkinnyTrees: Lift Health for All Podcast aims to highlight voices of people from the research, community, and policy worlds who are doing work that advances health equity. By doing so, SkinnyTrees is creating an easy and accessible way for a larger audience to learn about the health equity work being conducted at Northwestern University and in the City of Chicago.
Special health equity related events are also hosted on an on-going basis.
Prioritizing Women's Health
- Black Maternal Heath Momnibus - Dr. Melissa Simon worked closely with the Black Maternal Health Caucus and Rep. Lauren Underwood’s office to assist in drafting the Black Maternal Health Momnibus bills. She and Northwestern University’s Center for Health Equity Transformation also endorsed the bills and connected with local partners and stakeholders to increase endorsement of these bills.
- Research Excellence in Gynecologic Cancer Health Disparities - CHET is home to a newly launched Northwestern University Cancer Health Equity Research SPORE (NU-CHERS), an National Cancer Institute funded developmental Specialized Program of Research Excellence. NU-CHERS will generate scientific findings and establish sustainable, collaborative, academic and community infrastructure that will serve as the foundation for a comprehensive translational cancer research program focused on gynecologic cancer health disparities – the first of its kind in the nation. The initial translational research focus of NU-CHERS is on endometrial and ovarian cancer disparities experienced by Black women. NU-CHERS will also spearhead the development of a centralized biobank of human gynecologic cancer tissue specimens to be used in health disparities research studies.
- Research Training and Outreach Focusing on Uterine Fibroids - CHET provides research training for undergraduate students and community outreach support to Northwestern’s Uterine Leiomyoma Research Center. Students from underrepresented and diverse backgrounds work on research projects focusing on the causes and treatments of uterine fibroids, the most common tumor found in women, and one that disproportionately affects African Americans.
- Women’s Reproductive Health Research Career Development (WRHR) Program - CHET’s Director, Dr. Melissa Simon, is the Research Director for Northwestern’s WRHR Program, which prepares early career faculty in Northwestern’s OBGYN Department to become successful independent investigators in women’s reproductive health research.
Chicago Cancer Health Equity Collaborative
The Chicago Cancer Health Equity Collaborative (ChicagoCHEC) is a U54 comprehensive cancer partnership between the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University, Northeastern Illinois University, and the University of Illinois at Chicago that advances cancer health equity through meaningful scientific discovery, education, training, and community engagement.
ChicagoCHEC is an ongoing partnership that has successfully:
- Established transdisciplinary cancer disparities research programs in behavioral and social science, biomedical, and translational science
- Mobilized researchers, educators, community leaders, students, organizations, and patients in innovative cancer education and community engagement programs to improve health outcomes among Chicago’s low-income, minority, and disability communities
- Provided training, mentoring, and learning opportunities to recruit and retain minority and underrepresented students in health and cancer research careers
- Supported the career development and advancement of minority and underrepresented faculty and scientists
ChicagoCHEC is fueled by community voices, composed of 25+ key community stakeholders in government, political, business, health care, cancer advocacy, education, media, and philanthropy—and represents Chicago’s rich diversity with respect to community areas, races/ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, and disabilities.
ChicagoCHEC Community Engagement
The ChicagoCHEC Community Engagement Core leads community engagement, cancer education, and outreach activities to foster meaningful interactions between cancer centers, academic institutions, and the communities they serve. In concert with the National Cancer Institute’s National Outreach Network, we expect our Community Engagement Core activities will yield valuable data on factors associated with poorer cancer outcomes experienced by some communities, as well as factors associated with improved cancer outcomes experienced by other communities. Identifying the driving forces behind cancer inequities provides a unique and powerful opportunity for ChicagoCHEC to translate research findings into direct action.
In 2019, ChicagoCHEC participated in over 30 local community events. In addition, ChicagoCHEC conducted the 4th Annual ChicagoCHEC Community Forum: Navigating the Cancer Journey: With Resources for Early Detection to Survivorship with 250 attendees. In 2020, the ChicagoCHEC team was awarded 5 additional years of funding from the National Cancer Institute. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, ChicagoCHEC went virtual. ChicagoCHEC conducted 13 virtual events including virtual community conversations with our community partners. The 5th Annual ChicagoCHEC Community Forum Addressing Cancer Together during COVID-19 was successfully conducted virtually with 100 attendees.
ChicagoCHEC Research Fellows Program
In addition to advancing cancer health equity research, ChicagoCHEC offers the Research Fellows Program, which is one of CHET’s signature workforce development programs. Fellows are recruited from Northwestern University, University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), Northeastern University, and City Colleges of Chicago, with 15 to 17 Fellows per annual cohort to date.
Diversifying the Workforce
Along with our ChicagoCHEC Fellows Program, we are working to diversify the healthcare workforce in novel ways through our T37 program, Career911 online course, and our Health Equity Scholars Program.
T37 Northwestern University Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Training Program (NU-MHRT)
The T37 Northwestern University Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Training Program (NU-MHRT) provides health disparities research training experiences to minority and other underrepresented students and trainees at the undergraduate through postdoctoral levels in order to prepare and enhance the next generation of health sciences researchers committed to improving minority health and reducing health disparities. This program is open to people from across the United States, not just to those affiliated with Northwestern University. Trainees can focus their research and skill development in any aspect of interest that advances health equity, including but not limited to basic, translational, clinical, and population science. Research theme areas can include women’s health, cancer, health care quality and patient-centered outcomes research (PCOR), chronic diseases, global health, mental health, etc. This five-year program is supported by NIH’s National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities and allows CHET to recruit between 8 to 10 T37 trainees per year.
Carmenisha Ward, MD Candidate, (NU-MHRT) Trainee 2020
“Career911: Your Future Job in Medicine” – A Massive Open Online Course (MOOC)
“Career 911” is a free massive open online course (MOOC) focusing on health sciences and health care careers and workforce development. Since launching in April 2015, more than 20,000 students from 160 countries have enrolled. Skills covered in the course include: articulating a personal story, resume and cover letter writing, job search, interviewing, professional networking, and professional communications. Topics are packaged into video-based modules that are designed to allow students to learn at their own pace. Career 911 was supported with funds from the Office of the Provost, the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center, and the National Cancer Institute . For more information, visit coursera.org/learn/healthcarejobs.
Health Equity Scholars
The Health Equity Scholars Program is a volunteer opportunity that provides individuals at all levels with a substantive experience to learn more about health inequities and how to apply creative problem-solving to complex social issues using intersectional approaches, as well as develop professional skills that enhance their career development. Health Equity Fellows are paired with a CHET staff supervisor based on their area of interest and support our existing research projects or help our team develop new projects. Students and applicants from underrepresented backgrounds are strongly encouraged to apply, and this opportunity is available to both people who do or do not have an affiliation with Northwestern. If applicable, current students can request to have this experience qualify as their practicum experience for academic credit.
Gaby Wagener-Sobrero, MPH, Health Equity Scholar 2019-2020 & Community Engagement Officer for the Office of the Mayor
Areas of interest on which Health Equity Scholars can choose to focus include the following:
- Community Engagement
- Education Programs
- Social Media and Digital Engagement
- Graphic Design and Web Support
Racial Disparities in Maternal Health Outcomes
The OPTIMIZE Study: Optimizing Patient Navigation for Perinatal Care
Black pregnant persons experience profound health disparities in the United States, with Black moms dying from pregnancy-related causes at the highest rate of any other group . Most of these deaths are preventable. Given this public health crisis, there is an urgent need to improve perinatal care, which is the care before and after pregnancy, for Black pregnant persons.
Funded by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, the OPTIMIZE research study will test an integrated and comprehensive perinatal care checklist with patient navigation support that aims to address these disparities. The study will work toward increasing pregnant persons’ ability to attend their pre and postnatal visits, receive comprehensive care during and in between visits, and by connecting them to resources to address social determinant of health needs. Our Center is partnering with ACCESS Community Health Network and AllianceChicago to plan and conduct this study in community health centers in Chicago, Illinois.
4R Care Coordination for Patients with Cancer
Primary care in community health clinics is crucial for making care accessible for all individuals. However, patients facing a cancer diagnosis must seek care outside of this more familiar setting. Oftentimes when patients receive a new diagnosis of cancer, their primary care needs are markedly disrupted. Building on our Center’s extensive experience in community-engaged intervention research with providers and health systems addressing needs of medically underserved communities, and in partnership with AllianceChicago, we have implemented a “4R” (Right Information, Right Care, Right Patient, Right Time) cancer care coordination project that responds directly to our local community health center partners’ needs and uses a care plan approach to help primary care providers and care coordinators ensure that their cancer patients receive the highest quality cancer care .
ECOG ACRIN Research Group's Health Equity Committee
Dr.Simon is the current chair of the ECOG ACRIN Research Group’s Health Equity Committee. The ECOG-ACRIN Cancer Research Group, a collaboration between the Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group (ECOG) and the American College of Radiology Imaging Network (ACRIN) is a multidisciplinary, membership-based scientific organization that is dedicated to achieving research advances in all aspects of cancer care to reduce the burden of cancer and improve the quality of life and survival in patients with cancer. The Health Equity Committee of the ECOG ACRIN Research Group specifically ensures that racial justice and health equity are embedded within cancer clinical trials. These considerations include a broad definition of underserved populations, including adolescents and young adults, the elderly, racial/ethnic/gender minorities, and rural residents, allowing the committee to ensure that research efforts include a full representation and accrual of underserved groups.
Further contributing to advancements in health equity is ECOG ACRIN’s role as a National Cancer Institute Community Oncology Research Program (NCORP) Research Base. NCORP is a national network that designs and conducts clinical trials and care delivery studies with a commitment to embedding a health equity lens to all the studies across the network. As one of the Research Bases, ECOG ACRIN is one of seven nationwide hubs for the provision of clinical trial administration, data management, scientific leadership, statistical expertise, operations, and regulatory compliance.
Connecting Knowledge to Policy
CHET recognizes that transformative change that can promote health equity will require changes to policies and systems that have historically oppressed people from marginalized populations. We embrace the American Public Health Association’s (APHA) concept of Health in All Policies  which recognizes that ALL policies have implications on health outcomes.
CHET develops connections between researchers, communities, and policymakers that are currently operating in silos. To do this, we provide researchers and community members with opportunities to learn more about the advocacy and policymaking process, and educate policymakers on the academic and community resources available that can inform the policies they develop. Furthermore, we create spaces for all to interact so that opportunities to collaborate become more accessible.
Supporting Current Legislative Efforts to Advance Health Equity
Dr. Melissa Simon is working with lawmakers, including Senator Dick Durbin and US Representatives Bill Foster and Lauren Underwood, to push for more stability of federal funding for scientific and biomedical research through sponsoring the bicameral American Cures Act and the American Innovation Act, which are meant to provide annual budget increases to federal agencies responsible for a significant part of America’s research funding.
Additionally, Dr. Melissa Simon and CHET are supporting the bipartisan MOMMA’s Act, which extends coverage under Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to one year postpartum and provides additional support to States to address the maternal and infant mortality crisis. CHET is also supporting ongoing efforts to reform sex education laws in Illinois to ensure that sex education is LGBTQ+ inclusive and contains content aimed at preventing sexual abuse and violence.
- United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF): Dr. Melissa Simon serves as a member of the USPSTF, which works to improve the health of all Americans by making evidence-based recommendations about clinical preventive services such as screenings, counseling services, and preventive medications.
- National Academy of Medicine (NAM): Dr. Simon serves as a member of the NAM Roundtable on the Promotion of Health Equity, which “brings together key stakeholders to share ideas, exchange knowledge and insights, and create collaborative networks” by exposing health inequities, amplifying cross-sector work, and empowering partners, stakeholders, and new leaders.
- Essential Workers’ Rights During COVID-19: CHET Research Project Coordinator Edgardo Ramirez participated in national advocacy efforts to protect essential workers during COVID-19 .
Illinois Unidos: Illinois Unidos is a portal for the Illinois Latino COVID-19 Initiative - a consortium of over 70 Latino elected and appointed officials, together with health professionals, and representatives of community-based organizations. The initiative aims to present one united voice in stopping the growth of COVID-19 in our communities while addressing related public health issues and the devastating economic impact of COVID-19. Dr. Simon and Dr. Aida Giachello are founding members of Illinois Unidos. Together, they have been pushing the statewide initiative for Latinx residents for over six months.
CHET maintains ongoing communication with Senator Duckworth and Senator Durbin’s offices on maternal health disparities and other health equity policies.
View our additional policy engagements in the Appendix.
Chinatown Patient Navigation Program 2.0
The Chinatown Patient Navigation (PN) Program is a National Cancer Institute funded research study that focuses on increasing cancer screening and enhancing cancer care for the residents of Chicago’s Greater Chinatown area. The program first launched in 2013 and navigated almost 800 women for their breast and cervical cancer screenings. With this success and lessons learned, the PN Program was granted a renewal in 2020 to expand navigation to all cancer types for both men and women experienced by residents in the Greater Chinatown area. The PN 2.0 Program will implement strategies and tools to support coordination and integration of Social Determinants of Health (SDoH) related efforts across community oncology and community social service settings. The PN program will continue to tailor a culturally appropriate program for the underserved, linguistically isolated immigrant community with low cancer screening rates. The program aims to work toward organizational change, reducing time to diagnostic resolution, and reducing time to treatment initiation.
Healthy Aging Research
The Intersection of Cancer and Culture: Financial Burden among Chinese and South Asian Elders with Malignancy in Chicago
Financial concerns for cancer patients and families increase with escalating costs associated with cancer diagnosis and treatment. Costs for cancer patients can cut into their ability pay for basic needs such as food, housing, and clothing - potentially leading to spending savings, or even to bankruptcy. Little is known about financial burden of Asian elders with cancer. Asian cancer survivors report poor healthcare communication, quality, and self-efficacy when compared to white patients. CHET is working closely with investigators from the Asian Resource Center for Minority Aging Research on The Intersection of Cancer and Culture: Financial Burden among Chinese and South Asian Elders with Malignancy in Chicago, a pilot project that aims to assess financial burden due to cancer costs and to understand the perception and management of financial burden from cancer care based on traditional cultural values such as filial piety and family duty.
Food Pantry Initiative
CHET is working with Northwestern Medicine and Lurie’s Children Hospital to start mini food pantries in clinics and hospitals across the hospital network by following the Food 1st model. Many staffs, patients, families, and students experience food insecurity, but do not have time or transportation to go to on-location food pantries. Some people are ashamed or uncomfortable disclosing their address and income when they go to regular food pantries. So we are looking to set up 24/7 self-serving food shelves to provide non-perishable goods that people can pick up on-the-go. There will be a simple log book to collect zip codes and other de-identified information to help us understand our patrons’ needs. We hope to help alleviate some short-term food insecurity burden, especially during hospital stays.
Decreasing Barriers in HealthCare and Enhancing Participation and Diversity in Clinical Trials
Precision Medicine Initiative (All of Us Research Program)
Funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the All of Us Research Program aims to enroll one million or more people from across the U.S. to help speed up medical research. People who join will share information about their health, habits, and what it’s like where they live. By looking for patterns, researchers will learn more about what affects people’s health. The All of Us Research Program will be one of the most diverse health databases in history. Researchers will use the data to learn how our biology, lifestyle, and environment affect health. This could help them develop better treatments and ways to prevent different diseases. The program began national enrollment in 2018 and is expected to last at least 10 years. Recently, the program has begun analyzing DNA results to prepare to return results to participants. They’ve also contributed to COVID-19 research by creating the COVID-19 Participant Experience (COPE) Survey and testing blood samples for antibodies to help fight the next pandemic.
Dr. Simon serves as the Patient and Community Engagement Leader, helping to ensure diversity in recruitment strategies and target participants.
Health for All: Library Partnerships to Advance Diversity in Clinical Trials 
Funding from the National Library of Medicine helped develop the Health for All platform (healthforallproject.org), a web-based tool developed through a design thinking approach to be used in public libraries and hospital patient education centers. The goal of the Health for All tool is to help the general public learn more about clinical trials and to specifically increase clinical trials awareness and knowledge among populations underrepresented in clinical trials. Due to their accessibility and roles as information gatekeepers, librarians and health providers that serve populations that are underrepresented in clinical trials are promising partners for disseminating clinical trials information.
To date, the Health for All team has conducted seven events at Chicago Public Libraries in underserved neighborhoods on the West and South Sides, including Hegewisch, Greater Grand Crossing, and Brighton Park. The Health for All platform will be used for the next phase of the research project to increase access to preventive services for underserved populations, which is described in the next section.
Health for All: Advancing Library-Academic Medical Center Partnerships to Navigate Wellness and Scale Preventive Services Access 
Recently, CHET was awarded a three-year grant from the National Library of Medicine that will expand on the Health for All project to include information on preventive services to reach underserved populations across Chicago. The Navigating Wellness tool aims to empower library patrons with accessible health information that they can use to seek out preventive health services, while also empowering librarians to support their patron’s search for health information. This tool improves communication and facilitates understanding across patients and healthcare providers, fostering the trust and understanding required to encourage underserved patients to avail themselves of appropriate preventive services.
CHET has received a one year Administrative Supplement from the Office of the Director of the NIH to add a maternal health focus to the Navigating Wellness tool, as part of NIH's Implementing a Maternal health and PRegnancy Outcomes Vision for Everyone (IMPROVE) Initiative. The supplement will create a Navigating Wellness: “Well Mama” Module with a focus on 5 priority topic areas: (a) mental health/depression; (b) cardiovascular symptoms; (c) safety (e.g., guns at home and intimate partner violence); (d) opioid/substance abuse; and (e) social support, self-agency, and well-being.
CHET Event Highlights
On January 21, 2020, the Center brought experts together to discuss “Housing and Health Equity” in a panel format. This event included an overview of local housing initiatives such as Bring Chicago Home, Better Health through Housing, and the Cook County Flexible Housing Pool.The group specifically focused on the issues related to homelessness in the City of Chicago and featured local leaders such as Alderman Byron Sigcho Lopez of the 25th Ward, Sam Carlson from Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Betsy Benito from the Corporation for Supportive Housing, Carlos DeJesus Rivera from the Center for Housing and Health, and Melissa Simon, MD, MPH from CHET.
On March 3, 2020, the Center hosted an engaging talk titled “Understanding the Historical Contexts Behind Health Disparities”. Joining our founder and director, Dr. Melissa Simon, in discussion were Dr. Linda Rae Murray and Jose Lopez from the Puerto Rican Cultural Center. A focus of the discussion was the whitewashing of history and how this connects to our understanding of the worsening health inequities and disparities in our communities.
On June 19, 2020, the Center proudly hosted a “Juneteenth Virtual Cookout" Celebration with students, academic, and community colleagues. This event encouraged supporting Black-owned restaurants in the City of Chicago. We celebrated this holiday with an introduction to Juneteenth, featured music, choreography, poetry, short film, artwork, and action items on anti-racism.