COPE Seeks to Improve Health of Families of Navajo Nation

As health care hubs like Boston continue to advance medical technologies and standards of care, rural communities can often be left behind. The Community Outreach and Patient Empowerment (COPE) Project combats some of these health care disparities through serving the Navajo Nation.

A partnership between the Indian Health Service, Partners In Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, COPE provides treatment as well prevention programs for people living within Navajo Nation. Originally launched in 2009, the program focuses on chronic disease prevention through access to healthier foods. BWH’s Dr. Sonya Shin, an associate physician in the Division of Global Health Equity and the Division of Infectious Diseases, directs the project.

COPE’s work has received great support from BWH, including a recent wine auction as well as ongoing medical education. About 130 individuals attended the wine auction, and raised more than $350,000 for COPE and medical education efforts.

“Our commitment to helping local and global communities is a pillar of our work at BWH,” said BWH President Betsy Nabel, MD at the event. “We are drawn together to help those in need – whether they’re here in Boston, across the globe or in Navajo Nation.”

Navajo Nation is a very impoverished area, with 30.5 percent of the 250,000 population living in poverty and 44 percent of the population unemployed. The nation also struggles with preventable chronic diseases, such as diabetes. Currently, 55,000 Navajo national residents are living with the disease. “Navajo Nation faces a disproportionately high burden of disease,” said Dr. Nabel. “It would be hard to find a population more in need on American soil.”

COPE’s program and local coalitions work with small stores within Navajo Nation to provide healthier, locally grown food. They also offer a fruit and vegetables program, which provides vouchers fresh produce for young families with health risk factors. Additionally, the program will provide health outreach to these families through stronger collaborations between clinic providers and community outreach teams.

COPE has not only received BWH’s support, but also has received national recognition with a recent $3 million Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) grant by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The REACH award focuses on racial and ethnic communities experiencing health disparities and is part of a larger HHS initiative to support public health efforts to reduce chronic diseases, promote healthier lifestyles, reduce health disparities and control health care spending. The grant will be distributed in $1 million increments each year for three years. These funds will further enable COPE to influence healthy living habits across Navajo Nation, noted Shin.

“Within three years, we hope that young families will actually have healthy food available in their communities and will make more healthy choices for the long-term health of their children,” she said.