Health Hub Spotlight: Elizabeth Prom-Wormley
By Jenny Pedraza
In the spring of 2017, Elizabeth Prom-Wormley, assistant professor in the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Family Medicine and Population Health in the Division of Epidemiology, was asked to serve on an executive steering committee for what would eventually become the VCU Health Hub at 25th.
The health hub opened in May 2019 at the intersection of Nine Mile Road and North 25th Street in the City of Richmond. It serves as a health education and wellness center for residents of Richmond’s East End.
Prom-Wormley’s background in health research in the City of Richmond, along with her existing partnerships and collaborations in the East End, made her an essential part of the steering committee’s team of about 15 professionals. But to get the full picture of Prom-Wormley’s contribution to the health hub’s creation, you have to rewind more than 20 years.
After graduating with her bachelor’s degree in kinesiology from The College of William and Mary, Prom-Wormley came to VCU in 1997 to earn a master’s degree in public health. She continued on to earn a doctorate in integrative life sciences, specializing in genetic epidemiology.
After completing a postdoctoral fellowship with the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics at VCU, Prom-Wormley served as a research associate in the VCU Department of Human and Molecular Genetics. She helped to manage community-based datasets containing genetic and environmental risk factors related to smoking behaviors in adolescent and adult twins. As a genetic epidemiologist, this type of research was what she was trained to do. She was focused on understanding how genetic and environmental factors contribute to mental health and substance use in families. However, she also wanted to know how to use that knowledge to support current treatments and interventions.
“I was singularly focused on genetics research, but I also was interested in applying what I found back to the public health sphere, and I wanted to know that my work was actually helping real people,” she said. “Mental health and substance use affect families and challenge their ability to thrive. I became increasingly curious if it were even possible to support families by talking about their family health history in community settings, especially in communities of color. Does it help to know whether your family has a history of substance abuse, of depression? Is there a need to support mental health and substance use in this way?”
Prom-Wormley decided she would get out into the community to learn more. In her free time, she volunteered with organizations in the City of Richmond involved in health outreach and services. These volunteer efforts led her to partner with the Seventh District Health and Wellness Initiative, spearheaded by Richmond City Councilwoman Cynthia Newbille. The initiative was a collaborative partnership between East End residents, approximately 30 community organizations focused on health and wellness, elected officials and health care providers. This collaborative has become part of the Community Action Network, which is led by the Peter Paul Development Center. When Prom-Wormley got involved, the group was looking for ways to come together strategically to best serve residents in the area and gain additional funding.
“As conversations began, it became clear that the group wasn’t really sure which issues in the East End should be prioritized and where several groups could collaborate together, so that’s where the idea of me leading an effort to develop and implement a survey came into play,” Prom-Wormley said.
Over the course of the next two years, Prom-Wormley and a survey team that included East End resident recruiters, non-resident survey administrators, VCU faculty and students and community organization representatives, developed the Seventh District Health and Wellness Survey, which was mutually beneficial to all members of the initiative. Through a mix of events, outreach in and around public housing communities and going door-to-door with both paper and online surveys, Prom-Wormley’s team was able to get responses from 1,064 East End residents. Two months later, the team along with other members of the collaborative partnership, analyzed and discussed the results together.
The major health concerns among residents identified from the responses included mental health, physical health conditions and lifestyle/diet/exercise.These have informed the priority areas of the health hub. A persistent theme emerged surrounding “connected wellness.” This theme reflected two ideas. First, there was an understanding that mental and physical health are connected within the person and go hand-in-hand with lifestyle choices. Second, there was a need to connect people in need with services, as well as connecting the service organizations with one another.
“One specific comment from a resident really stood out for me: ‘I see that you guys are offering services, but I don’t know how to connect with them,’” Prom-Wormley said. “And we kept hearing from our partner organizations that even though they were attending meetings together, they didn’t have a clear path to efficiently connect residents for additional services. What I learned from the process was that we can do significant work together when the community identifies the questions and actions using quality data and methods alongside committed partners with research experience."
Prom-Wormley sees her role in the Health Hub as one that supports the programs, classes and initiatives that are growing there by using knowledge developed from the data previously collected. She helps faculty and staff as they build on what they’re already doing and by involving residents at every step to ensure results are informed by experience.
“The thing that is so powerful about the health hub, from my perspective, is that its very existence reflects the issues that the community defined as important - and not just five or 10 people, but over 1,000 people, right in the neighborhood,” Prom-Wormley said. “I believe that the power of all of these voices led to a prioritization of programs which begins to address the challenge of developing a community culture of connected wellness that you see today at the health hub.”