At HMH, Project HEAL is more than initiative, it’s Health Care 2.0

Program, which treats violence as public health issue and aims to address it at its roots, recently received additional $3M in grant funding

Hackensack Meridian Health officials will be the first to share that the $3 million in grants they have received so far this year from federal and state sources for their transformative Project HEAL program are vital to help the unique initiative continue — and even expand.

The significance, however, is far greater.

Project HEAL is a program that attempts to treat the victims of violence at the source — no matter how it occurs or why it occurs. It’s an effort to break the cycle of violence that so often follows.

The grants are an affirmation of HMH’s vision of Health Care 2.0 — one that seeks to understand and address the social determinants of health and behavioral health issues that are at the core of so many issues — is working.

It’s an affirmation that the mission to address health care issues before they enter the four walls of a health care facility is the future.

Project HEAL, a hospital-based violence intervention program based at Hackensack Meridian Jersey Shore University Medical Center, is doing just that. The program, which started in March 2021, has aided 400 victims of violence — whether their injuries were caused by a gun or a knife or a fist, and regardless of whether they came through a gang-related event or an incident of domestic violence.

“We see this as a public health crisis,” CEO Bob Garrett said. “We see this as something that is closely tied to our efforts to transform and expand access to behavioral health care services, which is one of the goals of our merger with Carrier Clinic.

“We see this as a way to address some of the underlying causes, the social determinants of health. If they’re not identified, and if people are not receiving help for these underlying causes, we’re not getting to the real issue.”

The U.S. Department of Justice apparently sees it this way, too.

As part of its Community Violence Intervention and Prevention Initiatives, it recently awarded Project HEAL $2 million from the $100 million Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. The additional funding, from the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General, is part of a $10 million allotment for the continued support of the New Jersey Hospital-Based Violence Intervention Program.

In its nearly two-year history, Project HEAL has provided more than 1,850 individual and group counseling sessions, as well as hundreds of instances of emergency financial assistance, health screenings, informing of victims’ rights and referrals to available legal, medical and faith-based services.

Sadly, the program’s impact cannot fully be measured for years — when it can see how many of those being treated return.

Today, those numbers are shocking. Studies show that 40% of those who come into the emergency department with a violent injury are back with another violent injury within five years. Up to 20% die of another violent injury within five years.

Dr. Aakash Shah, the medical director of Project HEAL and the chief of addiction medicine, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Jersey Shore University Medical Center, said these statistics show that violence cannot be seen as a one-time event, but rather a result of other factors.

“If I zoom out and look at the work that we’re doing with Project HEAL, it’s unequivocally clear to me that this is what it means to be a leader in behavioral health in the 21st century,” he said. “We can no longer be satisfied with just treating patient’s post-traumatic stress. We need to do everything we can to enable their post-traumatic growth.

“I see this investment as an opportunity to keep getting better at doing exactly that.”

That is done through trust as much as treatment, Shah said.

When a victim of violence comes into the Jersey Shore University Medical Center, they are seen by more than just a team of doctors and nurses. They get a visit from a social worker from the community, too.

“We hire a lot of our staff from the very communities we serve,” Shah said. “They look like the folks that we often serve, and they speak their language literally and figuratively.

About Project HEAL

Project HEAL (Help, Empower and Lead), which was started at Jersey Shore University Medical Center in 2021, assists victims of violence in multiple ways: through counseling, emergency financial assistance, legal referrals, transportation assistance and more. To date, the program is approaching $8 million in state and federal funding.

Dr. Aakash Shah, the medical director of the program, said the impact is clear.

“These investments send two very clear messages,” he said. “First, our health care network and state and federal leaders understand that violence is a serious public health issue. Secondly, if you have been a victim of violence, they see you, they hear you and they are providing the resources needed to ensure that your tomorrow is better than today.”

Across the nation, hospital-based violence intervention programs have reduced homicides by as much as 60% in areas where they are implemented.

“We deploy our frontline staff from Project HEAL to their bedside to take advantage of that teachable moment. To say to them, ‘There’s a lot happening right now, you’re seeing a lot of faces, you’re hearing a lot of names, and I just want you to know that I know what that’s like.

“‘I’ve been shot, I’ve been stabbed, I’ve been assaulted — and, yet, I stand before you here today doing better, and I want you to know that that’s exactly what I want for you.’”

To be clear, that single visit doesn’t solve the problem — it doesn’t end the cycle of violence that may have brought the victim to the hospital.

But it’s a start, Shah said.

The Project HEAL member will give the victim their name and number, will check back before they are released — and will follow up after they are released.

It’s a level of care few others are providing, but care Garrett hopes to see expand.

The community-based violence intervention funds grants will enhance Project HEAL’s existing infrastructure by enabling the team to access Monmouth County’s at-risk youth, ages 13-20, and provide them with the holistic support needed to break the cycle of violence, he said.

HMH also is making plans to expand the program to some of its other facilities.

And, Garrett said, HMH is eager to work with health care systems in the state and around the country to introduce this type of program. The interest, Garrett said, is there.

“I talk to other CEOs around the country, and I think there is starting to be a realization that violence, particularly gun violence, is a public health crisis and a public health emergency,” he said.  “We’re hoping, as a CEO community, to bring more attention to this and to try to coordinate our efforts so best practices are shared and we can really make a difference.

“We’ve teamed up with folks across the river at Northwell Health, as an example, where there’s been an initiative to increase awareness about this, to really make sure that people understand that it is a public health crisis.”

It’s a health crisis that needs to be treated with a new formula of care, Garrett and Shah said.

HMH sees it — and its leaders are thrilled that others do, too.

“The $3 million in grants that just came in from state and federal agencies is a validation that the program is working — and that we should try to expand it,” Garrett said.