May 8, 2024

Innovative Health Justice Learning Institute Launches at Lowell CHC With New Executive Director

Lowell Community Health Center is pleased to announce the appointment of Sheila Och as the inaugural Executive Director of our Health Justice Learning Institute©. Och is a co-founder of the Institute. She will also continue in her role as the health center’s Chief Equity Officer.

The Health Justice Learning Institute© launches alongside the planned Family Medicine Residency Program, aiming to expand healthcare workforce capacity and set a new standard in collaborative healthcare education.  Grounded in health justice, cultural proficiency, and community engagement, the Institute’s innovative model addresses immediate workforce shortages and health disparities, establishing a precedent for healthcare education and delivery.

Recently, the Institute achieved a significant milestone by securing a competitive Advocates for Community Health (ACH) grant. This critical $500,000 grant, which Lowell Community Health Center has already received, will fuel the planning and development phase of the Institute in the coming months. With this support, the Institute is embarking on a carefully structured planning period, building a robust educational framework focused on cultural proficiency and anti-racist principles in healthcare.

“What we’ve learned from the state of healthcare both regionally and nationally, along with recent studies on healthcare inequity, underscores the urgent need for action. We must increase and better prepare a culturally responsive healthcare workforce that meets the specific needs of our community. This Institute represents a bold opportunity to fundamentally alter that narrative,” said Susan West Levine, CEO of Lowell Community Health Center. “With over 25 years of experience in the public health field inclusive of workforce development, Sheila Och is the ideal person to lead this new initiative.”

Sheila Och commented, “By establishing a sustainable pipeline of healthcare workers who deeply understand the factors influencing our community’s health, the Institute is poised to address disparities effectively. Through our educational programs, we will equip health care workers with the necessary skills to improve patient outcomes. Our learning approach firmly acknowledges that racism and social determinants of health play critical roles in shaping health outcomes.  Moreover, we envision a pipeline structure that actively fosters economic mobility for our community via and into health careers. Our objective is unequivocal: to close the primary care gap by enhancing healthcare accessibility with a greater number of culturally responsive healthcare workers in a community-focused setting.” 

Healthcare stands at a tipping point. Nationwide, and here in Lowell, workforce shortages and lack of healthcare access have devastating consequences on the health of our communities. Decades of systemic and racial inequities exacerbate this situation. The US faces a projected shortage of 17,800 – 48,000 primary care physicians within the next 12 years.

Current and historic models often overlook the critical need for culturally responsive care. The Health Justice Learning Institute© anchored by the Family Medicine Residency Program will boldly change that. The Institute will feature a collaborative, cross-disciplinary setting – integrating Doctors, Nurse Practitioners, Medical Assistants, Medical Interpreters, Community Health Workers, and more into a scalable, flexible, and inclusive educational model.

Sheila Och’s extensive experience and achievements within our local community, the health center, and throughout Massachusetts have earned her widespread respect as a true leader in health equity. She is part of the Health Equity Compact, a group of 80 leaders of color from a broad spectrum of Massachusetts organizations, including hospitals, health centers, insurers, academia, and public health bodies, all working towards health equity in the state. Och is often called upon to share her insights during congressional hearings and was recently honored by The Institute for Health Equity Research, Evaluation & Policy (IHERP) in their “Women Leading the Charge” showcase for Women’s History Month. This prestigious distinction underscores her significant contributions to health equity in Massachusetts. Och is a Community Health Worker and trained Spanish speaking Medical Interpreter with an educational background that’s equally impressive, with degrees and certifications from UMass Lowell, Boston University, Suffolk University, and leadership programs with Harvard Business School and the Lawrence Partnership. Och is currently pursuing her Doctorate in Leadership Psychology (PsyD) from William James College. Her commitment to racial and health equity, language access, and community health have made lasting impacts.