Working with communities: Meeting the health needs of those living in vulnerable communities when Primary Health Care and Universal Health Care are not available

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Rationale, aims, and objectives: The health care delivery model in the United States does not work; it perpetuates unequal access to care, favours treatment over prevention, and contributes to persistent health disparities and lack of insurance. The vast majority of those who suffer from preventable diseases and health disparities, and who are at greatest risk of not having insurance, are low-income minorities (Native Americans, Hispanics, and African-Americans) who live in high risk and vulnerable communities. The historical lack of support in the United States for Universal Health Care (UHC) and Primary Health Care (PHC)—with their emphasis on health care for all, population health, and social determinants of health—requires community health scientists to develop innovative local solutions for addressing unmet community health needs. Methods: We developed a model community health science approach for improving health in fragile communities, by combining community-oriented primary care (COPC), community-based participatory research (CBPR), asset-based community development, and service learning principles. During the past two decades, our team has collaborated with community residents, local leaders, and many different types of organizations, to address the health needs of vulnerable patients. The approach defines health as a social outcome, resulting from a combination of clinical science, collective responsibility, and informed social action. Results: From 2000 to 2020, we established a federally funded research programme for testing interventions to improve health outcomes in vulnerable communities, by working in partnership with community organizations and other stakeholders. The partnership goals were reducing chronic disease risk and multimorbidity, by stimulating lifestyle changes, increasing healthy behaviours and health knowledge, improving care seeking and patient self-management, and addressing the social determinants of health and population health. Our programmes have also provided structured community health science training in high-risk communities for hundreds of doctors in training. Conclusion: Our community health science approach demonstrates that the factors contributing to health can only be addressed by working directly with and in affected communities to co-develop health care solutions across the broad range of causal factors. As the United States begins to consider expanding health care options consistent with PHC and UHC principles, our community health science experience provides useful lessons in how to engage communities to address the deficits of the current system. Perhaps the greatest assets US health care systems have for better addressing population health and the social determinants of health are the important health-related initiatives already underway in most local communities. Building partnerships based on local resources and ongoing social determinants of health initiatives is the key for medicine to meaningfully engage communities for improving health outcomes and reducing health disparities. This has been the greatest lesson we have learned the past two decades, has provided the foundation for our community health science approach, and accounts for whatever success we have achieved.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1056-1065
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 2021


  • health care
  • health care policy
  • medical education
  • multimorbidity value
  • public health
  • value

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Policy
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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