Partnership aims to bridge cultural health divide

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PORTLAND — The University of New England is partnering with the Portland Community Health Center in a program designed to better prepare students to work with under-served populations across the city and beyond.

“It really is a project that is designed to improve the health of immigrants and refugees in Portland and it could be translated to really any area that has a large number of that population,” said Jen Morton, associate professor and nursing program coordinator at UNE. “It is doing that by increasing the capacity for students to be better equipped to take care of these patients and help existing health professionals.”

The project, called CHANNELS, is funded by a $1.27 million grant from the Health Services Research Administration. Since the award was made last September, a project team has been working on developing an interprofessional model for training, education, service delivery and research based on the CHANNELS acronym: community, health, access, navigate, network, education, leadership and services.

The team is also partnering with the Portland Community Health Center, the City of Portland, Health and Human Services, the Maine Center for Disease Control, Portland Housing Authority, Somali Women of Maine and others to develop the program so that immigrants and refugees will feel comfortable making use of services.

Morton said that while a lot of outside work has been done to prepare the program, it really begins in the classroom.

“We are starting in the classroom, providing better education (to nursing students) on cultural competence and immigrant and refugee health. Then we are taking students and providing experiential, clinical and preceptor-based experiences so they are able to use these skills in that setting,” said Morton.

In addition to working with students, the CHANNELS program is also working with the city to provide more health outreach workers to create a trusting relationship between health professionals and immigrant and refugee populations.

Students from UNE will be working in clinical settings all over the city, but will spend a lot of their time working with clients at the Portland Community Health Center on Park Street.

Leslie Clark Brancato, chief executive officer at the center, said they are looking forward to working with students to provide them with more experience working with under-served populations.

“It is exciting to participate with the University of New England to advance interprofessional education and to provide the opportunity for students to experience this approach in real community clinical settings,” she said. “The best care is an approach that takes the whole person into account. UNE is at the cutting edge of training future health professionals as interprofessional teams, rather than silos, and this will translate to better care for people.”

Morton said the CHANNELS program is important because it serves a community that is often at a loss when it comes to working with health-care systems.

“What is critical about accessing health care for someone who is very unfamiliar with our health system is trust,” she said. “We have clinics that patients can go to but if they don’t understand or trust our health system, then they aren’t going to access it.”

The outreach portion of the CHANNELS project aims to change that by helping immigrant understand how to make use of the health care system in Maine.

“This kind of interprofessional project allows for much more effective, truly community-based prevention,” said Julie Alfred Sullivan, Portland’s public health director. “We expect to see improved outcomes in populations who have been traditionally harder to reach.”

Morton said that the student curriculum is still under construction, but there have been many students interested in participating in this project, slated to start in the fall.

Amber Cronin can be reached at or 781-3661 ext. 125. Follow her on Twitter @croninamber.