Getting to the Root of Health Care Problems

Health Leads
Boston-based Health Leads recruits college students to assist low-income people in obtaining essential, non-medical services.

Rebecca Onie describes her mission as “bringing Google to life” for low-income people in need of services. Her Boston-based organization Health Leads recruits thousands of college students to assist low-income people in identifying and obtaining essential, non-medical services, such as food assistance, child care, job training, and fuel.

The program takes a much more holistic approach to resolving health issues than is standard practice. Its volunteers follow up with patients, looking at all aspects of their lives and addressing the small obstacles that medical officials may regard as trivial, but that can often impede improvement.

Onie, who was awarded a MacArthur Genius grant for her work, founded her organization in 1996 when she was a Harvard undergraduate. While there, she worked at Greater Boston Legal Services, where she was profoundly affected by the ways in which poverty affects health. She saw parents’ health deteriorate due to moldy, cockroach-infested housing and lack of heat. She saw children missing school and falling behind due to poverty-related illnesses. Yet she also believed that the medical establishment addressed only the final stages of the problem by prescribing medicine to treat these illnesses. In many cases, doctors felt helpless to intervene because they didn’t know how to address these deeper socioeconomic problems.

Volunteer college students play a vital role because they are trained in tracking down information. “Say your client is a Latina mother working two jobs,” she told The New York Times. “She needs food supplements. She has no transportation. Your job is to locate a food pantry within walking distance of her home that’s open after 8:00 p.m. and has a Spanish speaker on staff. That’s a perfect problem for a college student. It’s like a really fancy Google search.”

Currently, Heath Leads has about 1,000 volunteers, and they staff resource desks in the waiting rooms of 23 hospital clinics or health centers in East Coast cities. Doctors refer patients constantly to Health Leads and Onie’s organization has assisted almost 10,000 patients. Everyone needs a helping hand on occasion and, thanks to Rebecca Onie, low-income parents can get one as well.