Special services: How RWJBH is meeting unique health care needs of specialized communities

When the now-named Babs Siperstein PROUD Center opened at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Somerset in January 2017, it was noted as the first health care facility in New Jersey to provide primary care services tailored to meet the needs of the LGBTQIA community in a safe, supportive environment.

It started as a one-night-a-week clinic — and served just over 200 patients in its first year.

It has grown to be a five-day-a-week center that serves thousands, offering services such as primary medical care for children and adults, hormone therapy and monitoring, HIV care, health education, counseling, support groups and referrals for specialty services. It also offers resume and job-search training — making it truly an all-encompassing center.

More than that, the PROUD Center is an example of how RWJBarnabas Heath is meeting the need for specialized care for certain populations — communities whose unique needs make them an awkward fit at traditional health care facilities.

In an issue where ROI-NJ is honoring the most influential Health Care leaders in the state, it’s important to note the efforts of facilities that are fighting the good fight for those communities that have unique needs, too.

Communities such as people on the autism spectrum.

No one likes trips to a hospital. When you’re on the spectrum, they can be even more difficult. Loud and hectic environments can trigger negative behavior and can lead patients to decompensate. Prolonged stays — whether it be waiting for an appointment or waiting to be released — can lead to anxiety episodes.

That’s why, in July, RWJBH hospital Trinitas in Elizabeth joined with the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey to cut the ribbon on the Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities.

Among other the benefits, the facility features 12 new beds, increasing the hospital’s capacity to 22 beds, while offering a continuum of care provided by a team that has training and experience caring for individuals who may need acute psychiatric hospitalization, medication management, crisis stabilization, psychiatric assessment or behavioral assessment and planning.

Trinitas long has been the only hospital in the state to offer a specialized unit for individuals living with intellectual and development disabilities and mental illness, for which adult psychiatric units are often not an appropriate setting. The CADD is another example of specialized care.

“In order to meet the specialized needs of those with intellectual/developmental disabilities, Trinitas needed to create an environment that was comfortable, inclusive and suited for those with disabilities,” Trinitas CEO Dr. Nancy DiLiegro said at the opening.

“The number of individuals with autism and other disabilities has grown across the state, and, over the last few years, wait times have doubled and patients in need of care are being held up in emergency rooms or screening centers for days while waiting to be admitted to appropriate inpatient services.”

Care for specialized communities goes beyond the clinical.

In 2022, RWJBH opened the RWJBarnabas Health Field of Dreams in Toms River, a recreational complex that intentionally addresses physical and social inclusion for people of all ages and abilities and recognizes everyone’s right to participate fully in equitable play.

The complex was the vision of Mary and Christian Kane, who were inspired by the Kanes’ 11-year-old son, Gavin, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2012, when he was just 19 months old.

After living through the frustrations and struggles of finding inclusive facilities to accommodate Gavin and other kids with special needs, the Kanes were inspired to build a recreational complex where Gavin and other children (and adults) with special needs can feel typical while enjoying recreational activities alongside friends and family in a safe and welcoming environment.

RWJBH officials will be the first to say they are not the only health care organization to offer specialized care to unique communities. From major health systems to standalone hospitals to nonprofit agencies, the state is filled with examples.

More are coming.

In April, RWJBH, Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care and Woods Services announced they will establish the first integrated primary and behavioral health care center for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and autism in New Jersey — thanks, in part, to an $800,000 grant from Gov. Phil Murphy and the New Jersey Legislature, which recognized the critical need for I/DD services.

Individuals with intellectual disabilities traditionally have poor health outcomes and a life expectancy that is nearly 20 years below that of the general population.

The center, which aims to open in 2024, aims to provide equitable access to primary, specialty and behavioral health services in an effort to improve health outcomes — and, hopefully, reduce the overall costs of care.

Frank Ghinassi, the CEO of Rutgers University Behavioral Health and an annual member of our Influencers list, summed it up this way.

“This new partnership highlights our shared commitment to increasing the capacity of existing primary care and behavioral health providers serving individuals with I/DD, ensuring that these patients receive the attention and specialized care they deserve,” he said. “Building a robust program of experts and a network of providers dedicated to caring for the I/DD population is a major step forward in addressing the gaps in care that these patients face all too often.”