May 27, 2024

An initiative to help Philadelphia residents manage their chronic illnesses has received a $5.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Carmen Alvarez, a nursing professor at the University of Pennsylvania, helps lead the program, which is a partnership between Penn Nursing, Philadelphia’s Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity, and grassroots organizations.

Alvarez has facilitated group sessions to help Latina immigrants with anxiety and depression overcome barriers to treating their conditions. The new project utilizes the same model but focuses on Philadelphia residents with cardiovascular disease.

The four-year NIH grant will go towards training community health workers to lead group sessions in their neighborhoods, and the evaluation of the project.

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The Philadelphia Community Engagement Alliance, or Philly CEAL, was formed during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 to assist city residents to access testing, and as part of a national CEAL program of the NIH. The new project, focused on chronic conditions such as hypertension, aims to build on the relationships that organizations developed over the past year.

The Inquirer spoke to Alvarez in an interview lightly edited for clarity and length.

What is the goal of the program?

We focus on overcoming barriers: things that get in the way of practicing what we know is good for us. For example, a lot of people with hypertension or diabetes know that they need to take medicine, if they’re on medication; do some sort of physical activity; or follow the recommended diet for their condition. But for many people, life gets in the way of doing that.

This is a program where we workshop those barriers. What is it that gets in the way, and what are all the different strategies we can implement to overcome those challenges?

What happens in the group sessions?

This program is designed to be nine sessions. People can meet in person, every other week, for approximately an hour and a half. They start with the knowledge base they’ll need: what is high blood pressure and cholesterol? Why do we care about those numbers? And then they move through the different steps of problem solving and critically thinking through what their barriers are.

What is the benefit of doing the sessions in a group?

One of the best parts, people have told me, is that it’s a group program.

A lot of times when you’re dealing with a chronic condition that other people in your immediate surrounding may not be dealing with, it can feel very isolating and frustrating. And when you’re in a space with people who are experiencing the same barriers, that helps to deal with the stigma and it’s also validating or encouraging. “Oh, I’m not the only one that’s struggling.”

You’re going to listen to differently than perhaps a provider. When it’s someone who you connect with because of shared experiences, I think their voice can be a bit more influential. That’s one of the powers of group support.

How does this program come out of Philly CEAL?

Philly CEAL was intended to address the unequal impacts of COVID-19 on communities of color. And part of that work involved building a community ambassador program, and engaging community health workers in promoting testing, vaccination, and treatments for COVID.

So for this new project, we’ll be training community health workers who have already been embedded in the community. Now they go out and lead their own groups, so that individuals in their communities who are dealing with a cardiovascular health condition can learn the skill that they’re going to need to best manage their condition.

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