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ASU prof appointed to assist Phoenix mayor on health policy issues

Emma Greguska

According to Arizona State University Clinical Assistant Professor Heather Ross, it is no longer enough for physicians to just be good at taking care of patients; they also have to be prepared to be policy advocates.

A practicing nurse herself, Ross holds joint appointments in the Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation and the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, where she shares that philosophy with her students. Now, with a new appointment as a policy fellow to Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, she’s really walking the walk.

Over the course of her two-year appointment, which began in September of this year, Ross will advise Gallego on a number of health care issues, including behavioral health and public safety, making Phoenix a dementia-friendly city, creating a 24/7 rape crisis center, and curbing the current and future nursing shortage.

“There are so many opportunities to do great work and live out our ASU charter of serving the community,” Ross said. “That is what really inspires me every day. It may seem Pollyanna-ish, but I could not be happier being able to be directly impact the community.”

Read on to learn more about Ross’ plans to tackle health issues in the city of Phoenix, her thoughts on the state of health care policy and how technology may be able to contribute to improved health outcomes.

headshot of ASU Professor

Heather Ross

Question: What steps are you taking to address some of the issues you’re focusing on?

Answer: In terms of behavioral health and public safety, the city is working on a bunch of things, including piloting a program using a behavioral health correspondent model where a behavioral health professional deploys with a police officer to complement their crisis intervention team. Part of my role is evaluating how that works out.

It works well in a lot of other cities in the country and outside of America, but one of the really interesting challenges we have in Phoenix is that the geography of Phoenix is so huge — and we’re also the fifth largest city in the nation in terms of population — so reaching someone in crisis can take time, and when someone is in crisis, every minute counts. So we’re looking at possible solutions to make sure there’s enough staff located throughout the city and that we’re doing it in a way so as not to divert resources away from other critical programs.

And then in January, Phoenix is launching its dementia-friendly initiative. Stakeholders from a variety of sectors will be building a centralized resource repository for people and families experiencing dementia.

Q: In a 2016 interview, you said policy around health care regulation and delivery was in a state of incredible flux. Is that still true?

A: Absolutely. At the federal level, in terms of what is a federal health care system going to look like, is there going to be a public option for health care insurance, how are we addressing pharmacy costs — that’s all still very much in flux.

At the state level, health policy, in some different ways, is always a moving target. Vaping policy is going to be very much on the docket at the state Legislature. And then of course, ensuring that we have ample resources for behavioral health across the state. Right now, among the 50 U.S. states and Washington, D.C., Arizona ranks No. 50 in terms of accessibility to behavioral health services. So that’s an area coming up for some real attention.

And then at the city level, we’re also looking at vaping ordinances and behavioral health services, as well as resources for those experiencing dementia and homelessness.

Q: You’re a proponent of technology and machine learning in health care. Will you be looking at using machine learning or other tech to help address any of the health issues you’re working on with Mayor Gallego?

A: Yes, absolutely. Particularly in terms of how 911 dispatch systems and police and firefighters can use smart technology most effectively to protect the public. I’ve been spending a lot of time out in the field with them, and they’ve been incredibly forthcoming in talking about some of the technologies that they use in their day-to-day operations on the streets of Phoenix, sharing about the things they see working well and some of the things they wish worked a little bit better.

One thing we’re doing now is trying to figure out what to do with this vast trove of video data we have from the body cams; thousands of hours of data every day. We’re looking at opportunities to use that data so that we can be more efficient and do a better job of proactive and safer policing.

Q: You’ve stated before that in order to be an effective health care provider today, it’s no longer enough to just be good at taking care of patients; you also have to be prepared to be a policy advocate. Why?

A: Everything that we do as health care providers depends on health policy to give us that social structure to do our job, to do our work with our patients and our communities. And frankly, people who are on that ground level, seeing patients every day and hearing their problems firsthand and experiencing some of those challenges of providing health care are the people in the best positions to advocate for the policies and services we need to make sure we have the resources we need to treat our patients.

I teach a health policy course for doctoral students at the Edson College of Nursing and I teach a science and technology course in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, and I think it’s critically important that people — whether they want to be policy professionals or service professionals — that they understand how policy works and that sharing their expertise and experience with policymakers can help them to write and pass the absolute best policies to serve our community.

Q: Your project SolarSPELL uses technology to spread health education in rural communities around the globe. Do you have any plans to use that tech here in Phoenix?

A: Yes! In fact, I’m going to be collaborating with some of our community partners, in particular here at ASU, with the SHOW clinic, to use SolarSPELL to develop and disseminate health education videos to people experiencing homelessness. One of the things we know is that smartphones are everywhere in the world. People have smartphones in proportions that you would not believe. When I was in South Sudan, people were living in shacks and refugee camps, but they still had smartphones, which was amazing. So because the SolarSPELL platform allows us to basically make a library available to people without having to spend money on data — they can download any of that content onto their smartphone — it became important for us to get educational videos out to people.

The reason video is so important is because you don’t need to be able to read very well to watch and understand a video. That’s one of the concerns with (paper) handouts; a lot of people in vulnerable communities may not have very high literacy skills. But with videos, it doesn’t matter if can’t you can’t read. You can listen, watch and get some really valuable health information. So I’m very excited that we’re going to be able to leverage SolarSPELL locally in that way.

Top photo courtesy Pixabay