Reducing health inequities globally

May 02, 2024 Written by Amy Cherry | Photos by Ashley Barnas Larrimore

Churchill Fellow Heather McFarlane of Northern Ireland visits CHS

From New Zealand to Delaware, Heather McFarlane is traversing the world to learn about best practices in reducing health inequities. McFarlane, a Winston Churchill Fellow who works as a consultant for Northern Ireland’s Public Health Agency, visited the University of Delaware College of Health Sciences on Friday, April 26.

“The Churchill Fellowship is an opportunity for me to explore globally how health professionals are addressing health inequities in their own country,” McFarlane said.

Back home, McFarlane works with partners to improve population health and well-being and reduce health disparities. Growing rates of obesity, diabetes, and mental health conditions are among the challenges facing both countries.

“My passion and priority are around inclusion health and bringing access to healthcare to harder-to-reach communities,” she said. “In Northern Ireland, the inequality gap has grown over the past several years, especially post-COVID. I’m very interested in learning about how these challenges are being addressed in other countries through meeting innovative people, appreciating the strategies used, and hearing from those impacted by the change.”

UD first came to Heather’s attention after she connected with Freda Patterson, associate dean of research for CHS and professor of health behavior and nutrition sciences, in Northern Ireland. Dr. Patterson presented her work on sleep and circadian determinants of cardiovascular disease risk.

UD was founded in 1743 by Francis Alison, a Presbyterian minister born in County Donegal, Ireland. In more recent history, Ireland has emerged as a key player in biopharmaceutical manufacturing. The country’s growth in that sector inspired a recent trip led by Gov. John Carney that included Kelvin Lee, director of the National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals (NIIMBL) and Gore Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at UD, and Kurt Foreman, president and CEO of the Delaware Prosperity Partnership.

“The key ingredient in our ultimate success is the spirit of collaboration demonstrated by the delegation and the commitment to accelerate our growth through concrete steps, including mutually beneficial partnerships with our Irish colleagues,” said Michael Fleming, president of the Delaware BioScience Association, in a message on the organization’s website.

These connections and the desire for stronger global collaborations inspired McFarlane to add UD to her fellowship itinerary.

“UD is doing amazing work in health equity, and the combination of community-powered research and applied knowledge used to address community needs is inspirational,” McFarlane said.

In meeting with representatives from UD’s Partnership for Health Communities (PHC) and the School of Nursing (SON) and touring UD’s Health Clinics, McFarlane saw first-hand how similar challenges are being addressed. She learned about PHC’s work to reduce health inequities by strengthening community connections and leveraging mobile healthcare facilities. She also learned about an opportunity for SON students to spend a semester studying abroad in Ireland.  The partnership with the University of Limerick aims to foster a global community around the challenges of improving healthcare access and mitigating disparities.

McFarlane, who’s seeking replicable solutions, was also fascinated by the diabetes prevention program within UD’s Nutrition and Health Coaching clinics.

“We have a massive capacity issue in Northern Ireland, where demand simply outweighs resources,” she said. “The work underway in UD’s clinics around reducing obesity and diabetes rates has massive appeal to me as rates continue to rise in Northern Ireland, and the need to develop and implement preventative strategies is crucial.” 

Winston Churchill Fellow Heather McFarlane of Northern Ireland connected with Freda Patterson (right), associate dean of research for CHS, in Ireland during Patterson's presentation on sleep and circadian determinants of cardiovascular disease risk. McFarlane visited UD to learn about strategies to reduce health inequities as part of her fellowship.

Patterson was grateful to host McFarlane on STAR Campus.

“Heather comes to the table with a deep understanding of the pervasiveness and complexities of health disparities,” Patterson said. “Her enthusiasm around the ongoing clinical and public health programs we’re spearheading at UD to tackle health inequities in Delaware was palpable.

“We face similar global challenges, and I’m excited to see the collaborations that are formed and the sustainable change that results from Heather’s passion and commitment to reducing disparities in Northern Ireland,” Patterson said.

From UD, McFarlane will travel to Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, where she will learn about an occupational therapy program that promotes health and wellness in immigrants and refugees; Montefiore Medical Center in Yonkers, New York, where she will work with program directors and nonprofits to learn about work underway to help people experiencing homelessness; and Boston, where she will be focused on health innovations with MassBio. McFarlane’s fellowship concludes with a three-day leadership seminar at Harvard University before she returns home to Northern Ireland on May 19.

“My goal is to learn from my colleagues at UD and elsewhere, who are serving as catalysts for change, and bring what I’ve learned back home and translate it into my community to make a difference,” McFarlane said. “But I’m also serving as a conduit and connector. I want to build to build collaborative networks to develop and share resources long into the future.”

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