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BJC looks beyond medical treatments to tackle root of health problems

"These are people and we have the opportunity to do a better job to create an equitable future for everybody in St. Louis."
Credit: SLBJ
BJC HealthCare's flagship hospital, Barnes-Jewish, in the Central West End.

ST. LOUIS — Jason Purnell was the principal investigator of the 2014 study that examined the health and well-being of Black residents in St. Louis and grabbed attention with its findings.

Titled “For the Sake of All,” the report by Washington University and Saint Louis University found that a child born in the 63106 ZIP code near the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood can expect to live 18 fewer years than a child born in the 63105 ZIP code of Clayton.

Now, Purnell is in a position to do something about the extensive research in that report, which cited how socioeconomic factors such as poverty, education, housing and inequality have a significant impact on health.

Since late August 2020, Purnell has been vice president of community health improvement at BJC HealthCare. He is in charge of the health system’s initiative to work with groups in “under-resourced” neighborhoods in the city of St. Louis and north St. Louis County. BJC’s board of directors and executive leadership team endorsed the plan in September 2021. Purnell said the charge he received was "not simply to reduce or ameliorate disparities, but to actually eliminate them."

“This is not an academic exercise for me,” added Purnell, who’s also an associate professor in the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University. “This is my home. This is where I’m from. I used to visit my grandmother in 63106, spent many a day there. These are people and we have the opportunity to do a better job to create an equitable future for everybody in St. Louis.”

BJC said focusing on the root causes of health problems will lead to “increased wellness and greater overall quality of life,” especially for those who live in areas of the city and North County plagued by under-investment. The Community Health Improvement program has a two-year focus on those areas, with plans to expand ultimately to BJC’s entire footprint, Purnell said.

Purnell declined to say how much BJC plans to spend over the two years. 

“We don’t share our departmental budget numbers,” he said, adding that he has a staff of three directors who report to him. “BJC has committed operational dollars to Community Health Improvement as a department and we also have realigned some of our existing community health efforts under this department.”

With net revenue of $5.3 billion, BJC HealthCare delivers services to residents primarily in the St. Louis area, southern Illinois and mid-Missouri regions. The system includes 15 hospitals and several community health locations.

Purnell said BJC will focus support in four areas that are significant to health and well-being: financial investment in the community, diabetes and healthy food access, infant and maternal health, and school health and wellness.

Read the full story on the St. Louis Business Journal website.

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