11 questions with Chicago's Steph Willding, CEO of CommunityHealth

11 questions with Chicago's Steph Willding, CEO of CommunityHealth

1) Introduce yourself

Steph Willding: My name is Steph Willding, and I am the Chief Executive Officer for CommunityHealth.

2) What is CommunityHealth?

SW: CommunityHealth is the largest volunteer-based free clinic in the nation. Since our founding in 1993, we’ve been a lifeline for uninsured low-income residents of the Chicagoland area, providing primary and specialty care, medications, dental care, lab testing, mental health services, and health education at no charge. Our unique model brings together volunteers, donors, and community partners to serve thousands of Chicago’s uninsured adults six days a week and advance our vision of quality health care for all.

3) Why is it important for your community?

SW: Many of our patients have never had a medical home that provides a comprehensive set of health services - all for free. At CommunityHealth, they have the chance to build a long-term relationship with their primary care provider. We strive to create a safe space for our patients, a place of trust, filled with familiar faces and fellow community members. Our volunteer interpreters remove the challenge of the language barrier, and all our printed material is available in Spanish and Polish as well as English. For many patients, this is the first clinic space where they feel their specific needs are taken into consideration.

Most of our patients also have chronic conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure. These conditions require ongoing care and consistent access to medication. We also offer multi-week health education programs that provide holistic support for patients struggling to keep chronic conditions under control.

4) What crucial health equity issue are you striving to change?

SW: Our mission is to serve people without essential health care. Everything we do at CommunityHealth is motivated by the belief that health care is a human right. We strive to increase access to quality care and have recently focused on achieving that through innovative solutions that rethink space and place for point of care. For example, we recently opened two microsite locations the neighborhoods where the greatest concentration of our target population lives and works. These clinics are co-located inside of community-based organizations already serving patients social needs. Now those patients can also visit a CommunityHealth clinic and receive telehealth or in-person services at a clinic closer to home. This increases access by reducing or eliminating the barriers patients experienced when accessing care, such as transportation, taking length time off of work, or finding childcare. By bringing the access point closer to home, we are able to increase access. 

5) What makes the community that you serve unique?

SW: All of our patients are low-income and most are immigrants who are best served in Spanish or Polish. At CommunityHealth, we provide care regardless of immigration status and we also deploy a strong patient input model to ensure our services meet the needs of our patient population. Our patients have the chance to provide feedback after every appointment, and are invited to join our Patient Advisory Council, which meets quarterly to assess how to better serve the needs of the population. Our connection to our community allows us to remain patient-centered, even as we adapt to the changing landscape of the health care industry.

6) How is CommunityHealth making a difference?

SW: Our unique model of care, built upon the three pillars of volunteerism, partnerships, and philanthropy, has always been a disruption to the established health care system.  Not only are we providing free, consistent and trustworthy care to our patients, we are saving area hospitals about $9 million annually by keeping our patients healthy and out of the emergency department where urgent care of unmanaged conditions would be uncompensated.

Even more important for us, we are making a difference for our patients. Every year, in our patient survey, we ask where they would access care if not for CommunityHealth. While most patients simply say they “don’t know” where else to go, the few who do have other ideas opt for emergency departments, urgent care centers, and – most concerningly – going without care at all. Delaying care can lead to conditions worsening and becoming both more difficult and more expensive to treat. We are keeping our patients healthy and out of the hospital so they can focus on their families and communities.

7) Are there any notable organizations that support CommunityHealth?

SW: CommunityHealth is honored to be one of 14 organizations selected for Johnson & Johnson’s Healthy Equity Innovation Award. This award recognizes organizations who are generating solutions to help close racial health and mortality gaps in six cities where Black and Brown individuals experience significant health inequities. As one of the awardees, CommunityHealth is receiving seed funding from a pool of more than $1 million from Johnson & Johnson Services, Inc., mentorship, and access to the Johnson & Johnson-JLABS ecosystem.

We are also an inaugural grantee of the Health First Collaborative, a collective of Chicago-based health care funders who are investing in community-led, hubs of health transformation to address the root causes of racial health inequities and improve the physical, mental and social well-being of all individuals and families in the region.

Other significant funders this year have included Crown Family Philanthropies, Healthy Communities Foundation, Sostento, and AIDS Foundation Chicago, among many others.


8) What inspires you?

SW: I believe everyone should have access to health care, but so many face enormous barriers to get it. I am inspired every day by the staff and volunteers at CommunityHealth who dedicate their lives and work to bringing essential health care to those who need it most.  Particularly in the last two years, the team at CommunityHealth has been extraordinary. From pivoting our work due to crisis to adopting a growth mindset and leading major innovations to better care for our patients – all while providing COVID-19 testing, vaccination and treatment – our staff’s commitment to our mission fuels and inspires me to keep doing more.

9) What keeps you motivated?

SW: I am motivated by the fact that while CommunityHealth is making big moves towards increasing access to high quality care, there is still so much more to do. The pandemic showed the country the inequities that exist in health care – inequities we have spent 30 years working to address. Our work is far from over and we have never been more motivated to continue leveling up, continue innovating, continue doing more to bring essential health care to all.

10) What is your outlook for future health equity efforts for the remainder of this year?

SW: COVID-19 magnified many existing inequities in health care and throughout society. While we are no longer operating in “emergency mode” like we were last year, inequities in health care (which existed long before the pandemic) create individual emergencies for people in our community every day. The pandemic provided new urgency – as well as new opportunities to evolve our programming – in ways that allow us to further reduce and address obstacles to care.

We cannot lose sight of the need for equity in health care – especially now as many people are actively losing their rights to both reproductive and gender-affirming care in a number of states. CommunityHealth stands in strong support of reproductive justice and gender-affirming care, just as we have always done for immigrant rights in Chicago. We remain an island of safety for those within our care.

11) What are your long-term plans for CommunityHealth?

SW: CommunityHealth showed what we are truly made of during the pandemic, and we are only just getting started. While there are many unknowns on the horizon, including when the public health emergency will end, I do know is that CommunityHealth is stronger than ever before.

CommunityHealth has been providing essential health care in Chicago for nearly 30 years. Built by Dr. Serafino Garella, with the heartbeat of more than 1,000 volunteers, and the brain power and dedication of 45 staff members, we have always been a safe shelter for those who have nowhere else to go. But during the pandemic, we leveled up. We added new depth to our thought process, additional capabilities to our toolbox, and adopted new angles of approaching the problems that existed in the ‘beforetimes.’ Each of us individually and all of us collectively are changed forever. We move forward into the next unknown together, bonded through our shared experiences, our growth, and our consistent commitment to continue leveling up to do more and better for our patients.

Find out more on CommunityHealth's website, or follow on Facebook or Instagram.

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