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NKU’s Institute for Health Innovation aims to make region healthier through embracing collaboration

By Maridith Yahl
NKyTribune reporter

A vision to unite and collaborate on health care, health innovation, and anything health-related was the catalyst for the creation of the Institute for Health Innovation (IHI) at Northern Kentucky University. Built to serve the Northern Kentucky region, the IHI embraces collaboration and problem-solving to make Northern Kentucky healthier.

Valerie Hardcastle

“My job is to improve the health of the population of the Northern Kentucky region by leveraging the resources, the programs, the talent, the skills that we have at Northern Kentucky University, along with community partners,” says Valerie Hardcastle, the St. Elizabeth Healthcare Executive Director of the Institute for Health Innovation.

IHI works ‘Linking Community’ by engaging those impacted by the issues; ‘Working Together’ creates partnerships and solutions; ‘Innovative Solutions’ invests in entrepreneurship, innovation, and education to problem solve and transform where healthcare is headed. They use the three to guide four areas of focus: Chronic Illness, Social Determinants of Health Applied Research, Future Health Leaders, and Accelerating Innovation.

Initially, the focus on chronic illness was centered on substance use disorder, says Hardcastle. They sought to address disorder in rural areas and children who had been impacted by moms taking substances during pregnancy.

NKY has plenty of chronic disease and substance use. A current challenge Hardcastle points to is the switch to Telehealth. It has been a godsend to many. However, in Grant County only 40% of residents have Internet, she says, and cannot use that service. Many don’t have cell phone coverage.

The Health Innovations Center

Hardcastle calls Owen and Carroll Counties “healthcare deserts.” They are working to bring Real-Time Healthcare to these areas. There are no buses or Uber service. Owen County has no hospital or Urgent Care. They do have one part-time psychiatrist.

“Consequently, many people there are struggling,” says Hardcastle.

This is where IHI begins problem-solving and working with community partners.

Social Determinants of Health is the next focus. For this path, Hardcastle says they felt the need to take care of their own.

“I would say most of our programs have been turned inward in that we know that homelessness and food insecurity and things like that are huge problems with students,” she says.

Working with the community partners, IHI is bringing a vision to fruition. They are creating on-campus specialty housing, specifically for students who aged out of foster care and for those who did not grow up in a stable environment. This will provide wrap-around service, including inexpensive housing and support needed to be successful in college.

“Education really is key to moving up in society,” says Hardcastle.

Feeding the University and Enriching Lives (FUEL) is a student-lead initiative that provides free food and hygiene products to NKU students. They have since begun a clothes closet. Partnering with Care Closet and California Closets, students can get any clothing they need, Hardcastle says. Initially begun to provide graduating students with clothes for interviews, it has expanded to a wide range. Students have access to anything from winter coats to clothing for their kids.

“That’s been our focus right now on the social determinants of health, just trying to address the basic needs that in our own community,” says Hardcastle.

High school students work on simulations

Developing Healthcare Leaders is the third area of focus. Hardcastle says this is to get students interested in attending NKU and to think about a healthcare career. That could be anything, not just a doctor, nurse, or EMT, but also an accountant, PR, electrician, says Hardcastle.

“Health systems are like universities, their own little village. They require one of everything,” she says.

Informing students about opportunities is a priority. Hardcastle says they target underrepresented communities, working with Newport High School and rural communities. Getting students on campus as much as possible, beginning in middle school, is a way to get them familiar with the university. They can help them understand what resources are available and see the possibilities, she says.

Accelerating Innovation is all about innovation and entrepreneurship, the last focus. For this, SoCap Accelerate provides social capital to upcoming leaders in health innovation. An Entrepreneur in Residence recruits startups and founders of healthcare-related companies.

“We’re not going to see results next year, but you know this is my end of career vision,” Hardcastle says.

One initiative she has already seen successful is when IHI worked with community members in Owen County to learn their needs. Securing grants, they hired a Care Coordinator. Residents go to her, a one-stop-shop, for any social services or medical connection.

“Our job is to know everything. Everything available to everyone, who is working in all those areas,” says Hardcastle.

The Care Coordinator connects, finds transportation, anything for residents to get the care they need. In the first 18 months, she was in contact with 272 residents. Of those, she connected 177 with treatment.

Northern Kentucky is one community with many governing bodies.

“Everyone really tries to work well together, and I think we do…I think that’s one of the things that makes the Northern Kentucky region unique because we are willing to work really well together,” Hardcastle says.

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