TEDMED Blog

Lessons From The Pandemic Frontline

This guest blog post is by Jeremy Farrar, the Director of the Wellcome Trust and TEDMED 2016 Speaker. You can watch his TEDMED talk here.


Working through an epidemic of an untreatable disease is the most frightening thing I’ve ever experienced. As a doctor, there is no worse feeling than telling a patient you have no treatment, but this was exactly the degree of helplessness felt during SARS and in West Africa during the Ebola epidemic.

Thankfully, with trials now confirming the 100 per cent efficacy of the rVSV Ebola vaccine, such fears surrounding the disease are beginning to subside. We should now be able to contain Ebola – at least if we can get the vaccine to those that need it. But these positive results shouldn’t stop us from taking stock and questioning what needs to be done to prepare us for the next emerging infectious disease, whatever it may be.

The Ebola vaccine trials were of course a remarkable success, and not just because of the numbers. They showed that, by working collaboratively across international borders and sectors, we can develop and test vaccines rapidly. The global coalition that worked on the vaccine achieved in a year what would normally take decades and, uniquely, developed a vaccine within an epidemic. That is something that has never been accomplished before, and a testament to what can be done when we collaborate.

So when Ebola next reappears – and it will – we will be ready. But we must remember that we weren’t ready last time. Because we were reactive, we were far too slow, too late. Over 11,000 people died in West Africa, and the economic cost to the countries affected runs into billions of dollars.

It’s important too to remember that the partnership that delivered the vaccine – involving pharma, philanthropic organisations, governments, regulators and NGOs – was an ad-hoc one, hugely reliant on the goodwill of those involved. This way of working, while inspiring, is neither reliable nor sustainable in the long term.

The partnership’s success was also based on having Ebola vaccine candidates ready to be tried in humans at the beginning of the outbreak. For MERS, Zika and many others, there are not yet such candidates.

We must start developing tools to fight these diseases now, and set up the permanent partnerships and systems necessary to do so. Progress is being made. The WHO has drawn up a blueprint for R&D to prevent epidemics and a new global public-private coalition – CEPI – has been established to advance the development of new vaccines for epidemic diseases so that we have candidates ready to test when an outbreak occurs.

But preparedness doesn’t end with the development of vaccines. While in 2016 many were watching the Zika emergency unfold, in central Africa another great but under-reported crisis was emerging: a large outbreak of yellow fever. It began months before the alarm was raised, gathering momentum in Angola and the DRC while diagnostic tests on its first victims were still being run in foreign labs, as there were no suitable facilities close by.

Once the magnitude of the outbreak became clear, it was quickly understood that the world’s emergency stockpile of the yellow fever vaccine would be insufficient – and likewise its capacity to manufacture new doses in time. Ultimately the outbreak was contained: other countries donated their vaccine stockpiles, doses were diluted to spread coverage, and a huge immunisation campaign was implemented – all thanks to a well-coordinated collaboration between the WHO, governments, health authorities, NGOs and volunteers. But again we were lucky.

If the stories of these two outbreaks seem largely doom and gloom, they shouldn’t. They show us what amazing things we can do when we work together, against what at times may seem like long odds. And they show us that, despite what the cynics and scaremongers say, we do have the ability to prepare for and fight against emerging infectious diseases. If we don’t yet have the tools, we can make them. We have the ability to make the world a safer place.

And in showing us our shortcomings, the histories of these outbreaks show us the way forward. If we want to make the world safer, we cannot be passive bystanders. We must be proactive in the face of health challenges in order to be a step ahead, or else expose ourselves to vast risks – and the dreadful consequences that can accompany these.

In a world of denser cities, increased international travel, migration and ecological change, the ability of emerging infectious diseases to spread and cause devastation is increasing. That’s not going to change, which means we have to. We’ve shown already that we can respond effectively to epidemics. Now we need to demonstrate that we can prepare for them effectively too.

Finding Time to Recharge and Reconnect

The ending of one year and the start of another lends itself well to reflection and reconnection.  Like so many of you, the TEDMED team values this time of year because it allows us to reconnect with friends and family while also taking time to be thoughtful about the year to come. As this year draws to a close, we look forward to unplugging and spending quality time with family and friends, writing down reflections of the past year and intentions for the new one, spending time outside in nature, and finally reading that book we picked up at this year’s onsite bookstore.

As we prepare to take some time off, we were curious to know how some members of the TEDMED community rest and recharge their minds and bodies as they enter into the New Year.  In response to specific questions, Jim Gordon, Lucy Kalanithi, Mark Zhang, Sarah Outen, and Sharon Terry shared with us the ways in which they recharge this time of the year.  We hope you find their responses as inspiring as we do and hope they are helpful as you think about how you will spend this time of year.

The first question we posed was: How do you use this time leading up to and entering the New Year to unwind or reflect?”

In their responses, these community members explain that they use this time as an opportunity not only to reflect and recharge, but also to “rebalance,” as Sarah Outen edsc_9130xplained. In the wake of what Sarah describes as a “full on year with its own storms and mountains” she plans to increase her time meditating and exercising as she “reflects on the past year and looks ahead to the shape of the next year.”  As we each reflect on the various storms and mountains unique to the past year of our own lives, we might benefit from what Jim Gordon describes as “going inward.”  Jim shares that “this will be, as the season urges, a time for me to go inward, to appreciate my connection with nature, and also to become aware of and let go of attitudes, worries, concerns, and recriminations that no longer serve me, if they ever did.”  

Part of this process of going inward involves meditation and reflection, something that Sharon Terry plans to spend extra time jh1_7100doing in the coming weeks.  She shared with us that her method for reflection “is a combination of writing, reading, and engaging in wonderfully deep conversation with family and a few close friends.” Similarly, Lucy Kalanithi unwinds and reflects by focusing on “mindfulness meditation, reading books and getting enough sleep!!” Lucy adds that exercise, family, and friends help to keep her going throughout the year.  Sleep seems to be an important component of this time of the year for all.  As Mark Zhang put it, “The holiday season is my time to enjoy time with my son, good food, and even better naps.”

We also asked: “In what ways will you be connecting with loved ones and yourself over the next few weeks?”

Connection with family and friends was top of everyone’s list for the coming weeks.  Lucy looks forward to celebrating Christmas with family in Southern California, which she explains that, after growing up in cold-weather climates, “still feels weird, and it still feels like a huge treat.”  Jim uses the time to call his brothers, children, god-children and, “any man or woman who has a speciimg_5275al but not recently visited” place in his heart, adding that he feels “a palpable joy in each of the connections and in the web that links all of us.” Reconnecting with family and friends is important to Sarah who, having recently completed her nearly 6-year London2London journey around the world, says that “after so many years away I am really glad to have time ahead with my family and friends.” Mark also plans on spending quality time with family, specifically by “reading more Richard Scarry books with my son!”

The usual time spent with family over the coming weeks will include some new themes for Sharon. She and her husband plan to have a “deep dive conversation” with their 2 children and their spouses, specifically discussing their plans for 2017, asking “how will they make space for the things that nurture them and their dreams,” and what Sharon and her husband can do to help. Sharon and her family will also be engaging in a conversation about end-of-life and death, something that was explored throughout TEDMED this year.  She will be having what she describes as “a death dinner!” during which she and her husband will share what they want the end of their lives to look and feel like, and ask that their family and close friends commit to making that happen. At TEDMED, we love this idea of a “death dinner,” which reminds us of Michael Hebb’s 2013 talk, “What happens when death is for dinner?” Sharon said that this dinner may seem sort of odd, but she loves the idea of communicating their decision with family and friends, adding that “they are up for it! They are used to how weird we are!”  

Finally, we wanted to know, “What are you looking forward to most in 2017?”

So much of what each community member is looking forward to in 2017 connects back to family, but also to their work, which is a source of great purpose, passion, and fulfillment to each.  The organization Sharon founded, Genetic Alliance, is marking its 30th anniversary, and she and her team are excited for what the future holds.  She told us that they have spent nearly 6 months “in profound contemplation” of what they want to be in the world, animg_3513d they discovered that their “heart and soul is in enabling a path for people to be authentically involved in all aspects of health – at home, in health care services and in biomedical research.” Mark shares that he and his colleagues at Cake are “excited to be in the inaugural cohort of companies participating in PULSE@MassChallenge in 2017” and that they will be rolling out new features to Cake.  We look forward to following the increasing impact that both Genetic Alliance and Cake are sure to have for those who are in search of better health.  

Lucy shared that in 2017 she will continue speaking about her late husband’s memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, while also prioritizing advocacy “for patients, caregivers, and for all those who need compassion from us and from our new President.” This intention to work for greater compassion and understanding in the wake of 2016’s tumultuous election is shared by others.  Jim explained that for him the election was a wake up call and a “summons to reach out to and find common ground with people who appear to look at the world very differently” from him.  Sharon commented that “as we enter 2017, America is not a predictable place, nor is the globe.” One of her intentions for 2017 is to explore the questions: “How can we love each other amid the massive strife on the planet for plants, animals and people? How can we love each other in our differences?” adding that she looks forward to the “joy and the pain in the undertaking” of finding the answers.

img_4632In 2017, these community members also intend to deepen their connections with family and continue what Sharon refers to as “inner work.”  For Lucy, 2017 will be filled with the joy brought by her growing toddler, Cady, who is “talking up a storm.” Jim is looking forward to watching his 14 year old son “drive to the basket” and also to “exploring the world with the little children” in his life.  For Sarah, the transition back into life at home following her London2London journey has been challenging at times, so in 2017 she is aiming for balance, “hoping to find increasing peace,” and looking forward to spending more time with loved ones. Sharon will continue to be deeply committed to her inner life work and growth as a path to serving the world. She shared with us that she will be entering a long-term study program called Gestalt Practice, “the aim of which is unfoldment, wholeness, and growth” that will, she explains, help her to follow and trust her own process, adding that, “it will help me get out of the way of meaningful growth.”

We hope these thoughts and reflections from some members of the TEDMED community have inspired you as you enter into this holiday season, bid adieu to one year, and welcome in a new year.  
From all of us at TEDMED, we hope you have a very happy and healthy holiday season. We look forward to collaborating with you in the year ahead!

WHAT IF you made earning a college degree a community goal?

This post is tenth in a guest series from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, about the winners of its 2016 RWJF Culture of Health Prize.

What does a college degree have to do with health? Quite a lot, says Mary Gwen Wheeler, executive director of 55,000 Degrees. Her organization has an audacious goal: see to it that at least half of adults in Louisville, Ky., have an associate degree or higher by 2020.

People with college degrees enjoy higher average incomes, are less likely to have ever smoked or to be obese, have fewer divorces and are more likely to exercise compared to those without a degree.

“We set this goal because we saw it as a proxy for increasing quality of life,” Wheeler says.

The dozens of business, education and community-based partners that launched 55,000 Degrees in 2010 have witnessed significant progress. The number of high school students who graduate with the skills to attend college and start their careers reached 63 percent last year, compared with 45 percent in 2012. The number of college students completing degrees has gone up at 4-year institutions, even as enrollment has gone down.

“We’ve been able to move all populations, but we haven’t been able to close the gaps” between white and minority students, Wheeler says. “That led us to the mayor’s Cradle to Career initiative. We understood we needed to start much earlier.”

Now 55,000 Degrees is one of four organizations with lead roles in a continuum of programs that begin with preschool and bolster education and training for Louisville residents beyond their high school and post-secondary graduations.

  • The United Way will spearhead work to get more children into quality preschool programs and prepare more than three-quarters of students for kindergarten by 2020, compared to about half today and a little more than one-third a few years ago.
  • The school district aims to have every student reading at grade level by the end of third grade. By 2020, it plans to raise the number of students who graduate from high school to more than 9 in 10 and ensure that 85 percent of high school graduates enroll in college, using steps such as summer coaching to keep new graduates on track.
  • The nonprofit KentuckianaWorks offers training and programming to give working-age residents the skills to get jobs and succeed in the region’s manufacturing, tech and healthcare sectors.

Taken together, these efforts will ultimately give more Louisville residents a chance at obtaining a degree—and a better life.

WHAT IF you used a land trust to build a grocery store and a movie theater — and give residents a greater sense of social connectedness and well-being?

This post is ninth in a guest series from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, about the winners of its 2016 RWJF Culture of Health Prize.

With just four screens and an unassuming Art Deco marquee, the 24:1 Cinema in Pagedale, Mo., may not seem like much to an outside observer. But to Alderwoman Marla Smith, the one-year-old movie theater’s lights are “eye candy” and a herald of the renaissance she fervently wants for her city.

“When I was a little girl, Pagedale was popping,” says the 44-year-old mother of three. People owned their homes and lived in them in this small municipality that is one of two dozen northwest of St. Louis, Mo., known collectively as the 24:1 Community. Big employers such as the Lever Brothers soap factory and the Stix, Baer and Fuller department-store warehouse anchored the community.

But by the mid-1980s, many Pagedale businesses were in decline or had shuttered. Unemployment rose, and X-rated movies were showing at the Olympic Drive-in. There hadn’t been a grocery store since the 1960s. Houses went dark when homeowners lost their jobs and mortgages.

In the 1990s, Mayor Mary Louise Carter and the neighborhood development group Beyond Housing began working together to replace dilapidated homes and vacant lots with affordable housing. Then about 10 years ago, they began meeting with residents to ask what else would make their lives better.

“Everybody agreed that a grocery store they could walk to and get fresh fruits and vegetables and get healthy meals was one of the first things they wanted,” Carter says.

It seemed a simple enough wish, but enticing a developer to build a store in a low-income community proved challenging. In the end, Beyond Housing financed construction with local taxes, and discount supermarket chain Save-A-Lot agreed to run the store, which opened in 2010.

A flurry of other development projects aimed at making Pagedale more livable and walkable has since brought in senior housing, a bank, and the cinema—all within a few blocks of each other. The city has used grant funding to repave the formerly uneven, unlit sidewalks near the theater and supermarket and has added streetlamps. A barbershop, health clinic, and county social services center will open next to the theater this year.

Because the cinema and supermarket are owned by a community land trust, their profits fund neighborhood development, which is a boon for Pagedale and the surrounding municipalities.

Though it might take some time, one of Smith’s biggest hopes is to attract a family restaurant to downtown Pagedale.

“Who wouldn’t want to go have dinner and go to a movie?” she says.

WHAT IF you turned fire stations into intake centers for people addicted to opioids?

This post is eighth in a guest series from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, about the winners of its 2016 RWJF Culture of Health Prize.

A bad month for opioids in Manchester, N.H., meant 30 overdoses when Chris Hickey first started working as a paramedic in the city 15 years ago. These days, the emergency medical services officer says Manchester’s emergency responders see 60 to 70 suspected overdoses each month. More than a half dozen of those are fatal, which represents a nearly 12-fold increase in the city’s overdose deaths between 2003 and 2015.

The spike mirrors a national trend, with opioid prescription drugs, heroin and illegally manufactured fentanyl fueling a 137 percent increase in deaths from drug overdoses between 2000 and 2014, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

“You have people of all backgrounds, of all ages who are all overdosing,” Hickey says. And those are just the emergency cases, he says. “We know that we have a large group of the population who are functioning addicts.”

How does one reach those who are addicted before they overdose? A small piece of the answer appeared to Hickey this spring when another firefighter’s stepbrother—homeless and struggling with heroin addiction—posted suicidal messages on Facebook and his family sent him to the fire department for help. It was the first time Hickey had encountered an addict who really wanted to take the first steps to get better. The two drove in Hickey’s pickup to Hope for New Hampshire Recovery, an organization that helps people overcome addiction. Three days later the man was in an inpatient treatment program, and Hickey was writing a proposal to Manchester’s mayor to turn fire stations into intake centers, where people could come without fear of being arrested.

Safe Station, as the initiative is called, launched in May 2016 in Manchester’s 10 fire stations. Within the first four months more than 420 people had sought help and been referred to treatment. Twelve people came in on Father’s Day, the program’s peak day. “They wanted to get better to be with their kids,” Mayor Ted Gatsas says.

Stephanie Bergeron, interim CEO of Serenity Place—a nonprofit treatment center in Manchester and a Safe Station partner—says all involved want to make the model as easy as possible for other communities to replicate. For her part, she would like to ramp up Serenity Place’s staffing on the weekends to accommodate Safe Station patients any time of the week.

“You want to catch people right at that moment when they’re ready to come in,” she says.

WHAT IF you used art as a tool for promoting better health?

This post is seventh in a guest series from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, about the winners of its 2016 RWJF Culture of Health Prize.

“I don’t think art in and of itself can do anything,” says Theo Edmonds, artist and co-founder of IDEAS xLab, an artist innovation company in Louisville, Ky. “But I think artists can change the world.”

More specifically, the former healthcare executive says artists can impact health in surprising ways. He’s found believers across Louisville, from the mayor’s office and local foundations to the area’s healthcare institutions and the University of Louisville. Together, they’re out to do transformative things across the city:

A vacant lot in the Smoketown neighborhood will become the venue for a drum circle as part of Project H.E.A.L., a five-year effort that will employ the arts to help residents look for solutions to community health needs.

This fall, a former liquor store will become home to the printmaking and bookbinding activities of Steam Exchange, a free after-school arts program.

A photovoice exhibit, featuring the photographs and written observations of West Louisville residents, will set the stage for a community meeting to pinpoint ways to start taking action to reduce violence in their neighborhoods, which have among the highest violent crime rates in the city.

Roots & Wings, a performing arts group made up of nine young adults of African descent, is addressing community violence, black identity and other topics in neighborhood workshops and main stage performances. They hope to get people talking and thinking about what they can do to level the playing field in Louisville and give everyone a fair shot at success.

In these projects and others, art has become a vehicle for change.

“The power is in the people,” says Hannah Drake, a poet and lead artist for Project H.E.A.L. “But sometimes you have to show people they have the power to change anything they want to.”

WHAT IF you created a wellness coalition to ensure health equity?

This post is sixth in a guest series from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, about the winners of its 2016 RWJF Culture of Health Prize.

Under a century-old wood canoe suspended by wire from the ceiling, seven people sit at a round table with a full agenda of health matters to discuss for the next hour. But first, Charlene Nelson, chair of Washington’s Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe, asks everyone to pause.

“Take a deep breath,” she says. “Let it happen. Take joy in what we’re doing.”

Once a month, the Pulling Together for Wellness group meets to discuss ideas for improving the tribe’s health and well-being. The American Indian Health Commission for Washington State—which works with all tribes in Washington—launched the initiative. Shoalwater tribe members were among the first to adopt the model, says Jan Ward Olmstead, a public health specialist for the commission.

Three years ago, the tribe formed a wellness coalition, creating a framework to discuss physical, emotional, spiritual and social health. “It’s where conversations are starting,” says Jamie Judkins, a member of the group.

Before drafting an action plan, the coalition enlisted teens to conduct a health survey. The move was intentional: Tribal elders wanted younger members to feel as if they, too, had a stake in their community’s future. Pairs went door-to-door to interview families about tobacco use, physical activity and access to nutritious food. The teens reported their findings at a community dinner and were asked for their ideas. They suggested ways to improve and link pathways for walking and biking and advocated for policies to prevent tobacco use.

“The challenges of the community were illuminated, and they could see themselves in that data,” Olmstead says. “It really set a clear path as to what direction the coalition would want to go in terms of their strategies.”

WHAT IF your community boosted homeownership by creating a ‘wealth accumulation center’?

This post is fifth in a guest series from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, about the winners of its 2016 RWJF Culture of Health Prize.

Chris Krehmeyer, president and CEO of the neighborhood development group Beyond Housing, estimates that the 24 municipalities northwest of St. Louis, Mo., known collectively as the 24:1 Community lost 6 or 7 percent of their 15,000 households during the 2008 foreclosure crisis. And eight years later, he says, “We’re still struggling.”

Property values haven’t rebounded, and 24:1 now has more renters than ever, he says. “That doesn’t have to be bad, but there’s strength in homeownership.” Homeowners create stability in a neighborhood because they generally move less than renters, and often they are more invested in the property and the community. Their children are more likely to stay in the same school, and that continuity can benefit students academically and socially.

One can see the decline in homeownership on the street where Pagedale Alderwoman Marla Smith lives. Seven houses on her block are Beyond Housing subsidized rental homes. Three belong to the Housing Authority of St. Louis County. Six houses are vacant. Two have been torn down by the city.

“That leaves maybe six homeowners,” Smith says.

Beyond Housing is working to boost homeownership in 24:1 in a number of ways. Its nonprofit 24:1 Community Land Trust uses a variety of subsidies to make homeownership affordable for people who would otherwise be locked out of the market. Residents own their homes, but lease the land, which is owned by the trust. The houses stay affordable because the trust controls the price owners receive when they sell. Buyers receive financial and homeownership counseling before they buy, and supportive services after they sign the contract.

With its partners Prosperity Connection, a nonprofit financial education provider, and Red Dough, a lender that offers lower-interest alternatives to predatory payday loans, Beyond Housing has established a “Wealth Accumulation Center” in downtown Pagedale. The center offers free financial coaching and classes on home-buying, credit repair, college and retirement savings, and other topics.

“We help people be aware of what they’re doing with their money,” says Financial Education Specialist Evette Baker, “and pave the way to saving so they can have a family legacy.”

>Read more about the 24:1 Community’s journey to a Culture of Health.

Shifting Perspectives Through Altruism

As social media, technology, and personal data become ever more prevalent forces in our society, the world feels like a much smaller place. We are not only able to understand what’s going on in areas we’ve never visited, but we are also able to have an impact in ways that were previously impossible. In an age where geographical boundaries don’t impose the same limitations as before, the possibilities for affecting change across the globe are shifting dramatically. As a result, we are tasked with rethinking our perspectives on important issues in fields like healthcare, scientific research, and morality. We are proud to highlight just a few TEDMED 2016 Speakers and Innovators who are confronting these challenges and developing new ways to create a healthier future for us all.

As we become more aware of the events that take place outside of our own communities, through news coverage, social media, and the ease of travel, our values on the moral imperative to help others may be called into question. For many people, the increased exposure to the suffering that’s occurring around the world motivates action. For example, you might donate to a humanitarian organization or spend time volunteering at a local soup kitchen. But for the majority of people, the desire to help others does not result in a drastic change to our daily routines. This isn’t the case for individuals that are deemed “extreme altruists.” Larissa MacFarquhar, TEDMED 2016 Speaker and staff writer at The New Yorker, is intrigued by extremely altruistic people and has examined individuals who dedicate their lives to the alleviation of suffering, whether this means donating their kidneys to complete strangers, adopting 20 children, or donating a large percentage of their yearly salary to organizations that help people they will never get to meet. In her recent book, Strangers Drowning, Larissa takes a closer look at these “moral saints” – as some call them – and aims to understand why they act the way they do, why they make the rest of us feel so uncomfortable, and ultimately, why they only account for a minority of the population.

Image provided by Watsi.

Image provided by Watsi.

While we might not all be moral saints, one of the organizations in the 2016 Hive is making it easier for us all to be a bit more altruistic. Watsi, co-founded by Chase Adam, is a crowdfunding platform for healthcare. They’ve created a website that allows anyone, anywhere to fund life-saving treatments for those in need around the world. By creating the opportunity for individuals or communities to fund a medical treatment or procedure, Watsi is pushing us to rethink the way healthcare is paid for. And, along the way they are saving thousands of lives. Not only is Watsi taking an innovative approach to providing healthcare for everyone in the world, but they are also innovating the operational aspects behind non-profit organizations. With a policy of radical transparency, Watsi guarantees that 100% of each donation will directly fund the healthcare that you specify.

Another TEDMED 2016 Speaker rethinking a conventional system is Sharon Terry, President and CEO of Genetic Alliance. After both of her children were diagnosed with a rare genetic condition, called PXE, Sharon took it upon herself to advance the research in this field so that no other parent or patient would be faced with the same situation her family experienced. As she learned about PXE, they found that many scientists were rewarded for advancing their own careers, and couldn’t stay focused on helping the patients that could benefit from their research. Sharon was frustrated by the lack of communication and collaboration between scientists, and she saw firsthand how the competitive nature of scientific research could actually hinder the process of research and development. Instead of becoming defeated by a system that had failed her family, Sharon founded PXE International and has been an advocate for system reform ever since. She wants to make sure that the patient voice isn’t just heard; but that it is actually driving transformation of biomedical research and healthcare.

These TEDMED 2016 Speakers and Innovators are shifting perspectives on conventional thinking and making significant progress in the fields of scientific research, healthcare, and morality. We are proud to have them at TEDMED 2016 and we look forward to the conversations and collaborations their work will spark on site in Palm Springs, CA this November 30 – December 2nd. Register today to join us.

WHAT IF you collaborated with unlikely partners to solve your community’s health problems?

This post is fourth in a guest series from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, about the winners of its 2016 RWJF Culture of Health Prize.

Paul Lindberg’s new job is to connect the dots. Officially, he is a collective impact health specialist for the Columbia Gorge region, which straddles Oregon and Washington.

Translation: He encourages groups that may not be used to collaborating to solve problems, together. Then he helps them find funds to support their ideas through grants or other sources.

Many organizations would not have the resources to research funding opportunities or to apply for grants on their own. But collectively, they have found success, securing close to $3 million in public and private grants since 2014.

In one collaboration, four school districts, a clinic, health officials and private dentists secured a commitment of $290,000—spread over four years—to develop a comprehensive school-based dental program for every 1st and 2nd grader.

In another example of cross-pollination, the health department in The Dalles, Ore., the county seat of Wasco County, is starting walking groups to educate people on health, exercise and nutrition. By design, the routes will run past corner stores that the Gorge Grown Food Network is working to supply with more locally grown produce. The idea is that when walkers get to the stores, they can use “Veggie Rx” vouchers—another Gorge Grown initiative—to buy snacks. Both the walking groups and the healthy corner stores have received $50,000 apiece from the Knight Cancer Institute.

Lindberg says “the anchor” for his work are the goals set in the community health improvement plan required by the State of Oregon. “That’s the document that we all can point to and say, ‘That’s what our community said we need,’” he explains.

Lindberg works through United Way of the Columbia Gorge, which receives funding for his position via Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital. A former lawyer who moved to Hood River, Ore., in 2000, Lindberg connects with community groups, nonprofit organizations, medical providers, health departments, schools, private practitioners and social service providers.

“It’s a very community-based, very collaborative effort,” Lindberg says, “and that has been one of the key components to our success.”

Mark Thomas, the chaplain at Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital who also works on mission integration, sees Lindberg’s role fostering more eagerness among groups to work together. “The system is strengthening as momentum is building,” he says.

>Read more about the Columbia Gorge region’s journey to a Culture of Health.