Catalysts of Change: Illuminating Health Disparities Through Research at the Fertitta Family College of Medicine

The Tilman J. Fertitta Family College of Medicine is no stranger to conducting research to find innovative solutions to some of the most pressing issues in health and health care. At any given point in time, there are numerous research projects at various stages of development being performed. The premise of these undertakings at the Fertitta Family College of Medicine may be unique, but they almost always share a foundational tenet that drives to the heart of the mission of the college.

Engaging, collaborating with, and empowering patient populations and community partners to improve their health and health care is an understood part of the mission of the College of Medicine. This is achieved not only through patient care and outreach of the UH Health Family Care Center, but also through the research of our prestigious faculty members. Recently, David Buck, M.D., M.P.H., associate dean for community health, published a paper titled “Advancing integrated care for individuals experiencing homelessness: harnessing data partnerships and coordination”.

His study centers on a local non-profit, Patient Care Intervention Center (PCIC) and the impact it has had on the community. According to Buck, “the PCIC aims to help overcome non-medical drivers of health by leveraging technology to encourage collaboration. This is an especially important factor for the most vulnerable individuals that suffer from a wide range of afflictions- from food insecurity, homelessness, and transportation limitations, to a lack of access to primary clinical care and behavioral health services.”

The PCIC is so effective because it utilizes technology to coordinate between hundreds of organizations in the city. Oftentimes, when an individual experiencing homelessness visits a hospital, they have their immediate need treated and are sent on their way. However, with these new partnerships, that individual now has the opportunity to get referral services for housing assistance or receive crucial connections with the Houston Food Bank. By treating more than the immediate effect(s) of illness, helping with housing and food insecurity will prevent illness and disease, among the many other services the PCIC provides.

The PCIC has serviced nearly 100,000 people since its launch in 2014. These preventative services and resources that have been provided to some of the most destitute citizens of Houston are changing the way we think about and provide health care.  Buck has helped make an impact on Bayou City, but even closer to home he has influenced another avid researcher at the College of Medicine and the Humana Institute. Ben King, Ph.D., M.P.H., clinical assistant professor initially met Buck while as a student at a student-run, free clinic in 2005. Since this chance encounter, Buck has provided advice and mentorship, and now they are both colleagues at Houston’s newest medical school. 

King has recently concluded his second annual Homeless Mortality Report (HMR) in Harris County. King’s HMR gathers data from the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences (our local Medical Examiner’s Office) which is then analyzed by an interdisciplinary team of University of Houston, UT Austin and UT Houston students. The HMR is the go-to resource for the county in tracking the deaths of Houston’s homeless population. “Through this report, we aim to draw attention to the deaths of individuals who are living in homelessness in our community, and highlight the causes of those deaths,” says King.

It tracks a variety of causes of deaths, from cardiovascular related diseases to accidental overdose or alcohol toxicity. Without this annual report, statistics affecting this vulnerable population would go unnoticed. The results of King’s work are far reaching, as the data he’s collected is critically important for public health, non-profit, and academic programs in our community.

“The intersection of health with homelessness and housing is central to a lot of my work. I tend to use the term ‘inclusion health’ to explain my framework, but all that means is that I’m interested in the folks in our community that are typically excluded by most health care and public health systems.”

The people he’s referencing are commonly found in the historic Third Ward and East End communities, as well as throughout the rest of the city. The College of Medicine was formed to help address the health care issues faced by our local communities. According to King “The mission of our college is to develop students and scholarly work that is focused on promoting health and health equity in the community. From day one at UH, I’ve felt like I’m surrounded by colleagues and students who understand why we have to look at stuff like this, if we ever want it to change.”

It is through research like that of David S. Buck, M.D., M.P.H.; Ben King, Ph.D., M.P.H. or our countless other faculty members, that the Tilman J. Fertitta Family College of Medicine empowers our patient populations and community partners, striving to improve the health and well-being of our local community.