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Economics Professor Leads Academic-Community Partnership

Last fall, Crossroads Community Services received the BUILD Health Challenge award to advance affordable nutrition and health services in low-income communities. Along with several Dallas-area health care services, the University of Dallas has supported this project, with Associate Professor of Economics Tammy Leonard, Ph.D., at the movement’s helm. 

“The BUILD Health Challenge was launched in 2015 as an innovative funding collaborative and award program,” explained Leonard. “It was intended to develop new pathways through which communities can drive and sustain improvements in health. The BUILD Health Challenge is motivated by the fact that in the U.S., 95% of health dollars are spent on direct medical services, but it’s estimated that 70% of our nation’s health and well-being is attributable to factors outside of medical services. These upstream factors include employment opportunities, food availability, air and water quality, transportation, education, public safety, housing and others. These upstream factors are the focus of the BUILD Health Challenge.” 

Leonard became a part of this initiative through her involvement as co-director of CARE, an academic-community partnership. For the past 10 years, she has been working to establish relationships with community partners toward similar goals of promoting community wellness and health. While they unsuccessfully applied for a grant from BUILD Health back in 2015, since then they have been extending their partnerships and growing their program. 

“Now, CARE has a track record of successfully executing research programs to study the upstream factors in conjunction with Crossroads Community Services, one of the largest nonprofit food distributors in the region,” explained Leonard. “One of the best things our current BUILD Health grant is expected to do is to further strengthen our relationship with Crossroads and add to that relationship Parkland Health and Hospital Systems, physicians from UT Southwestern, and Dallas County Health and Human Services. CARE was created with a vision of building just these sorts of collaborations, so we are thrilled to now have the funding to do so.” 

As a professor of economics at the University of Dallas, Leonard has been able to bring her experiences with community partnerships into the classroom. Not only does this expose her students to how the seemingly abstract ideas they study are present in the real world, but their fresh perspective also sheds light on aspects of her own research. 

“I love teaching UD students,” said Leonard. “Next semester I will be teaching a course in the economics of health care. I’m learning so much being part of the BUILD collaborative, and it will surely provide real examples that I can use in my classes. Also, my students probably don’t always realize it, but when I run into a challenge in my research I often sneak different aspects of it into the class. Even if it’s very indirect, listening to students’ ideas and questions about a topic I’m working on is often very helpful in getting me thinking outside of my usual comfort zone!” 

Leonard plans to include her students in her community research not only by “sneaking” examples into class discussions but also through the CARE Scholars program, which aims to involve students in putting their studies into practice in a community context. 

“This program is designed to allow students from multiple disciplines to put their discipline-specific learning to work in solving real-world problems,” said Leonard. “I anticipate many opportunities for students to be able to do this within the BUILD Health work that we have planned.” 

Examples of this work include developing an app to automate patient referrals, instituting new community health programs to combat chronic diseases such as diabetes, and exploring how to best align diverse institutional interests to meet shared goals. 

“CARE is launching a learning community this spring semester, and interested students should look out for the learning community meetings,” added Leonard. “These will be the first step in getting involved.”

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