UF HealthStreet and Cooperative Extension collaboration wins first place Innovations award from AAMC

Community health workers and Extension agents might not be the most obvious work colleagues, but at the University of Florida, they’ve been nationally recognized for the innovative partnership the two groups have formed. The 2022 Association of American Medical Colleges Innovations that Bolster Community Trust in Science Awards recognized Linda B. Cottler, Ph.D., M.P.H., FACE, Catherine W. Striley, Ph.D., M.S.W., ACSW, M.P.E, and Michael Gutter, Ph.D., with a first-place award for the partnership between the programs. The AAMC award highlights and recognizes pioneering approaches that bolster community trust and engagement in scientific developments that promote human health. Entries were judged on creativity, impact, and ability to replicate the innovation.

“We are honored to be chosen from among some of the most innovative programs in the country and can’t thank the community enough for its continued partnership,” said Cottler, co-director of the UF Clinical and Translational Science Institute’s community engagement program.

At UF, the HealthStreet program offers community members services they need where they need them, with a goal of reducing health disparities and connecting people with opportunities to participate in health research. Community health workers meet people where they are – sometimes outside the barbershop, sometimes at a church or events around the community.  The data collected from the Needs Assessment on over 12,600 people is used to understand community needs and concerns. HealthStreet was started and is led by Cottler, Dean’s Professor and senior associate dean for research in the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions.

UF IFAS Extension, led by the associate dean for Extension Michael Gutter, Ph.D., employs Extension agents who are equally prevalent in their communities, found in every county in Florida and every state in the nation. They bring expertise and knowledge to residents in their specific areas. This may include educational programs that answer economic or agricultural questions, environmental concerns, family programs and community leadership. Extension agents are now connecting the people they’re most familiar with the health services they need.

Linda Cottler, PhD, Catherine Striley, PhD, Michael Gutter, PhD
Linda Cottler, Ph.D., M.P.H., Catherine Striley, Ph.D., M.S.W., Michael Gutter, Ph.D.

A panel of judges from the AAMC and academic institutions across the country, along with leaders in biomedical research, education, and training, awarded the community health worker and Extension agent model with the first-place prize. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the two groups have worked closely together to deliver culturally and linguistically diverse health messages in plain language to the residents they serve. A colleague of Cottler’s since 1987, Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola from IC Davis, won second place.

The current efforts underway, part of a $6 million Centers of Disease Control and Prevention grant awarded in 2021, have brought HealthStreet and IFAS Extension together in communities around Florida and in 6 other sites in the US. They focus on areas of high vaccine hesitancy, bringing vaccines directly to people and even distributing NARCAN for opioid overdose prevention. The program monitors and tracks the collective impact, and a community advisory board guides the work among racial and ethnic minority, rural and socially vulnerable populations as they work to transform the science of community engagement.

The HealthStreet model of community engagement, part of the UF CTSI, has four pillars from which the current pandemic-focused programs are built:

1) Assess medical problems and concerns from community members,

2) Link people to medical/ social services and opportunities to participate in research,

3) Engage in multi-directional communication with and for the community and

4) Be a trustworthy partner to the community.

The 2022 AAMC Innovations to Bolster Community Trust and Engagement in Science Award is the ninth annual award developed in collaboration with the AAMC’s GREAT Group and GRAND leadership. The GREAT (Graduate Research, Education, and Training) Group is the professional development group for faculty and administrative leaders of biomedical Ph.D., M.D.-Ph.D., and postdoctoral programs. The GRAND (Group on Research Advancement and Development) leadership is the professional development group for research deans, deans of clinical research and other research leaders at academic medical centers.