Health equity being reimagined by Virtua, Rowan

From access to care to access to essentials (such as food), new college of medicine is working to ensure all of South Jersey benefits

Health equity can be defined in a number of ways, but it essentially comes down to one mission: Providing access to care and wellness to all.

So said Virtua Health CEO Dennis Pullin and Rowan University President Ali Houshmand.

The two leaders brought their organizations together in 2022 to create the Virtua Health College of Medicine & Life Sciences of Rowan University — a new academic health system that aims to improve care, conduct consequential research and create the health care workforce of the future.

But none of those goals will have its full impact unless everyone is fully capable of benefiting from them.

“This is something that I have committed my entire career to — and Ali has, as well,” Pullin said.

“How do we create an environment by which everybody can get the same level of care, including those with special needs and those that live in vulnerable communities?

“How do we make sure that 1) the access is there, and 2) the clinicians that we are jointly training have the competency to provide care for those with special needs in special places at special time.”

Houshmand said the parameters of care — and wellness — need to be a top priority.

“One of the things that is very important for both of us is preventative medicine,” he said. “How do we engage the balance of the university in providing wellness to people — whether it’s music therapy, animal therapy, spirituality, therapy, exercise, nutrition.

“When you look at the whole issue of health care, it’s much bigger than just people going to a place called hospital and getting well. There are so many other ways that you can really create a quality of life, especially mentally and physically.”

It starts at the most basic level: food.

Food insecurity and food deserts — two issues that are top of mind in southern New Jersey and around the state — are a problem the two are looking to solve.

Houshmand, who runs a small farm on campus, understands the challenges.

“How do we get fresh produce and food to hundreds of thousands of people,” he asked.

It starts with another example of equity and opportunity.

“At the farm, we are creating environments where different people can feel comfortable — especially neurodiverse kids,” he said. “I want them to be comfortable. I want them to be in a nonthreatening environment. I want them to enjoy being there, learning how to function as citizens once they finish school.

“This is a very important component of what we do. This is health equity, too.”

This community-based approach to wellness is something Virtua is built around, Pullin said.

“Virtua historically has been a health system that really focused on compassion, that focuses on delivering care in a manner in which people could receive it and feel good about,” he said. “Our brand promise is ‘Here for Good.’ And ‘Here for Good’ takes on many definitions in terms of our longevity and our being what the community needs. And we can’t do that by ourselves.

“When it comes to all things involving health equity — from addressing food insecurity to addressing special needs patients to everything else, we have to teach and train clinicians how to do that and do that with dignity.”