Health Services Innovator
Age: 32 at time of award
Published January 26, 2009
Rebecca Onie is a public health entrepreneur building a low-cost, replicable model that melds the aspirations of college students and the unmet needs of health care institutions to address the link between poverty and poor health. Project HEALTH, which she co-founded while a college sophomore, is designed to overcome the barriers for low-income families to good health outcomes that are often the result of apparently unrelated constraints, such as child care, transportation, housing, food, education, and legal advocacy. Onie recognized that health care providers are neither trained to diagnose nor have the tools to address the socioeconomic ills that contribute to poor health. Committed to a concept of a health care system that systematically addresses all patient needs, she created a program that works in concert with hospitals and physician mentors to mobilize college students to assist patients in overcoming obstacles limiting their access to health care. By deploying college students to Family Health Desks in clinics throughout the country, Project HEALTH enables these clinics to establish new protocols for routinely screening and addressing patients’ unmet resource needs. Equally important, by providing volunteers with direct experience of the relationship between health and poverty, the program has created a generation of young people committed to improving health care delivery in their future careers. Founded on one campus in one city, Project HEALTH now has hundreds of volunteers helping thousands of families each year at pediatric sites in Boston, Providence, New York, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Continually refining the Project HEALTH model for new challenges and local conditions, Onie is providing health care professionals with effective tools for alleviating the socioeconomic barriers that limit access to health care for low-income families, thereby expanding the scope of what health care truly entails.
Rebecca Onie received a B.A. (1997) and J.D. (2003) from Harvard University. With Dr. Barry Zuckerman, she co-founded Project HEALTH in 1996 and served as executive director until 1999. After attending law school, she was an associate at Miner, Barnhill, and Galland P.C. from 2003 to 2005, before returning to Project HEALTH as CEO in 2006.
Rebecca Onie has continued in her position as co-founder and CEO of Project HEALTH, guiding the organization through a name change, to Health Leads, and expansion. In 2014, Health Leads served over 13,500 patients and their families in 7 cities across the country. As a service provider, Health Leads is helping health systems to create models for integrating patient social needs into care, using a full spectrum of tools, including the Health Leads’ Desk, in which providers “prescribe” basic resources like food and heat, and well-trained student advocates stationed in the clinics work side-by-side with patients to “fill” those prescriptions by accessing community resources and public benefits. More recently, Health Leads has been piloting new solutions (including technology, training, and implementation insights) that will enable healthcare organizations to address social needs in a range of care settings and with a variety of workforces. In addition to its work as a service provider, Health Leads works with health systems at the leadership level to build momentum in the sector for addressing patient social needs. In this role, Health Leads shines a light on innovation and best practices and participates in critical efforts around evaluation and value measurement.
Updated July 2015
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