Medical Center Names Faculty Advisers on Community Health

by Adam Piore

Dec. 20, 2011Bookmark and Share
Watch video from the Columbia-hosted breakfast for local elected officials, community board members and representatives from community-based organizations. (3:59)

For years, researchers at Columbia University Medical Center have worked to bring the latest medical advances and treatment to their neighbors in Upper Manhattan.

Now, two longtime University clinicians, Drs. Rafael Lantigua and Dennis Mitchell, are leading efforts to enhance collaboration between the community and the medical center on pressing health problems including hypertension, stroke, diabetes and bronchial asthma.

“Both of us have been out there working in the community, but now we will be spokesmen for Columbia,” says Lantigua, a professor of clinical medicine at CUMC. “We can listen to community leaders and then go to the deans and say, ‘This is what the community needs. Who on your faculty should we contact?’”

Mitchell, senior associate dean for diversity affairs at the College of Dental Medicine, notes that while the University has been doing work in the community “for a very, very long time,” now it will be part of a strategic plan. “We would like to match the strengths and needs of academia and the medical center with those of the community,” he says.

Since their recent appointments, the doctors have been cataloging the myriad community-driven projects of thousands of researchers and clinicians at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, College of Dental Medicine, School of Nursing and Mailman School of Public Health.

Take obesity, a key health concern in northern Manhattan and a vibrant area of research at Columbia. “We may have 10 faculty members working on obesity, but they are not necessarily coordinated, and we may have only one faculty working with the local community,” notes Sandra Harris, assistant vice president of government and community affairs.

So far, Mitchell and Lantigua have met with all four medical center deans, the executive vice president of Harlem Hospital and the director of New York State Psychiatric Institute, among others, to put together a summary of their findings for Dr. Lee Goldman, dean of the Faculties of Health Sciences and Medicine, and offer a plan of action for 2012.

The next step will be discussions in the community to find fruitful new areas of collaboration, for which the past may serve as a guide. In the mid-1990s, neighborhood residents surveyed by Harlem Hospital identified dental problems as a top concern. Though Columbia had plenty of clinicians eager to provide oral health care, it was only by partnering with organizations in the community that they could identify the thousands of patients who needed care.

The result is a network of eight school-based clinics and a mobile dental van linked to five community-based practices located throughout Washington Heights/Inwood and Harlem. Patient visits overseen by Columbia’s dentists-in-training have jumped to 50,000 today from 3,500 in 1995.

“We could not have done this program here at the medical center without partnership with the community,” says Mitchell, who supervised the dental care effort.

For his part, Lantigua has been involved in successful collaborations between the medical center and the community, including one of the longest running longitudinal studies of the genetics of Alzheimer’s disease in Latino families of northern Manhattan. He currently oversees Columbia Community Partnership for Health at 390 Ft. Washington Avenue near the medical campus, where community leaders and researchers meet to discuss mutual concerns and research projects.

Recently, Columbia hosted a breakfast for local elected officials, community board members and representatives from community-based organizations “to announce we are going to knock on doors to talk about problems and to talk about strengths,” says Mitchell.

N.Y. State Assemblyman Guillermo Linares believes the new appointees “will be instrumental in helping develop the type of vision and type of approach that will build bridges between this institution and the communities that surround it.”

In his talk at the breakfast, Goldman emphasized that the medical center has always seen itself as a community resource. “We take care of people all over the world who choose to come here because of who we are and because of our partnership with New York-Presbyterian Hospital,” he said. “But we have the same commitment to the local community, including some of the most vulnerable people in Manhattan and all of New York.”