Healing partnerships

By Meleah Maynard

U physician reaches out to build healthy communities

When Michele Allen, M.D., Class of ’99, talks with people — patients in the exam room, struggling refugee and immigrant parents, social service providers — she sees opportunities, not problems.

“As doctors, we’re trained to pathologize, to look for problems and fix them,” she explains. “But that’s a one-way approach, and we’re learning that we need to reframe who we think of as the expert in the room to have a two-way transfer of information and expertise.”

Allen, a University of Minnesota physician and assistant professor in the Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, takes a community-based approach to health care and research, which she credits, in part, to her sociology studies.

“My graduate program in sociology was the foundation of what I do, but the international work I’ve done, as well as my residency and my work in community clinics, has also helped me develop an appreciation for people, their communities, and the organizations that serve them,” she says.

“People don’t appreciate researchers coming in and telling them things like, ‘You have too much diabetes in your community.’ We need to listen to how a community frames its own issues, which could be to tell us, ‘We don’t have access to enough fresh fruits and vegetables.’ Then we can work with them to come up with solutions.”

Last year, Allen received the 2014 University of Minnesota President’s Community-Engaged Scholar Award in recognition of her commitment to public engagement scholarship, addressing, among other things, health equity for immigrants and refugees. Recently, she also was one of six researchers to be tapped by the University’s Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC) to be Generation Next/UROC Faculty Fellows.

Under the direction of UROC and in partnership with Minneapolis-based Generation Next, the researchers will examine the whys behind the persistent achievement gap between white students and students of color in Minneapolis and St. Paul schools, as well as the community-based strategies being used to close it.

In her own work, Allen explores adolescent health issues and is an investigator in the Medical School’s Program in Health Disparities Research. Currently, she’s working with U of M Extension and community organizations to develop a program to help Latino families prevent youth substance use.

“It’s a family program that’s focused on supporting parents trying to help their children navigate what it means to be a teen in the U.S.,” Allen explains.

She is also working with the Somali, Latino, and Hmong (SoLaHmo) Partnership for Health and Wellness to promote resiliency by helping teachers develop strong relationships with students.

“Kids need people to understand who they are as individuals with different cultural backgrounds,” Allen says. “That kind of appreciative approach will help teachers better understand the academic and other challenges the kids they teach are facing.”


Published on May 14, 2015