Putting a Passion for Health Equity into Action

March 2020
Cassandra Okechukwu
MITRE Employee Cassandra Okechukwu

Cassandra Okechukwu spent years studying why certain populations experience poorer health than others and what could be done to eliminate health inequities.

"I went into academia believing the answer to bridging health disparities was producing science," says Okechukwu, who holds a master's degree in public health from Johns Hopkins University and a doctorate in social and behavioral science from Harvard. "But I discovered that there's a huge chasm between what is known and what is practiced. I wanted to put what we already knew to use, and I began exploring avenues to do that."

Her search brought her to MITRE.

"I learned that MITRE was a place where people work to put initiatives into place quickly," she says. "That appealed to me, because I wanted my work to make a difference for those the public health system has left behind."

Standardizing the Needs Assessment Process for Health Center Grant Applicants

After joining MITRE in April 2018, Okechukwu got an immediate opportunity to fulfill that dream. She worked on a project to simplify a process used to award federal grants to communities in need.

"I served on a multidisciplinary team tasked with helping the Health Resources and Services Administration [HRSA] standardize a key element in their Health Center Program's New Access Points process. The program provides grants to establish community health centers to serve medically underserved populations."

HRSA's goal is to direct funding to the areas where it's needed most, so for years applicants had to provide data illustrating the need in their targeted area. HRSA asked MITRE to create an automated system that would do that for the applicants. The end result was the Service Area Needs Assessment Methodology, or SANAM.

"We used 24 key measures to produce the Unmet Need Score," Okechukwu explains. "We looked at publicly available data on social determinants, such as poverty and housing quality. We also examined barriers to access to primary and preventive health services, such as lack of insurance and language issues. We looked at health indicators as well, such as mortality rates and the prevalence of conditions like asthma and diabetes in the population."

Using these and other criteria, the MITRE team created an Unmet Need Score for every ZIP Code in all U.S. States, Territories, and Freely Associated States.

"I know from experience that collecting data to demonstrate need can be an arduous and resource-intensive process," Okechukwu says. "Now, all applicants have to do is enter their ZIP Code in a field on the online application form and they see their ZIP Code's score.

"Also, all applicants are evaluated using the same standardized set of measures. That's important to me because it helps ensure that people with greater needs are not disadvantaged in the grant application process."

Seeing Her Research in Action

Just eight months after she joined MITRE, Okechukwu saw SANAM deployed on HRSA's grant application website for the 2019 grant application cycle. Now, she and her team members are evaluating the process to determine its impact. They're also considering further refinements and updates. 

"It's been amazing to see our work put into action so quickly," Okechukwu says. "That's a big change from academia, where people might consider your research for years before even thinking about translating it into practice. I'm enjoying this experience and am looking forward to having even more impact."

Beyond MITRE's walls, Okechukwu exercises her passion in other ways. She currently contributes her scientific expertise to a U.S. Surgeon General's report on health disparities. She also serves on a federal advisory committee for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, making recommendations on where grant funding for occupational health and safety initiatives would have the biggest impact.

"I'm grateful to have MITRE's support for these efforts," she says. "I want to contribute in any way I can."

by Marlis McCollum

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