Can Chicago Hospitals Harness Their Economic Might to Improve Lives on the West Side?

Ryan Black

Average lifespan in the West Side is 69 years. “That was the lifespan in the 1950s,” according to Darlene Oliver Hightower. “That’s the lifespan in Iraq.”

Darlene Oliver Hightower began with a fun fact: Her institution, Rush University Medical Center, is technically 2 days older than the city where it is based. It received its charter on March 2, 1837. Chicago was incorporated on March 4.

Then came the not-so-fun facts.

The population of Chicago’s West Side, where Rush is based, has a life expectancy 16 years shorter than that of the Loop, just miles away. Lifespan there is 69 years, on average. “That was the lifespan in the 1950s,” Hightower said. “That’s the lifespan in Iraq.”

Poverty is inexorably tied to poor health, and it’s at the root of that lifespan disparity. Rush, the largest employer on teh West Side, wants to change that. It helped put together West Side United, a group of health systems that also includes the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System, Cook County Health and Hospital System, Presence Health, Sinai Health System, and the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

Were the organizations combined, it would be the single largest corporation in Illinois. Hightower said the goal is to harness that economic engine and put it to work, investing in the institutions and citizens of the community. They combine to hire 6,000 people per year and pay over $4 billion in salaries.

West Side United has 4 main mechanisms to spur growth. They want to focus on hiring local talent and developing it; buying and sourcing as many hospital supplies as they can from the community; investing in diverse projects—like affordable housing or small business grant programs; and deploying their employees into the community through incentivized volunteerism.

Naturally, these endeavors must involve the citizens of the West Side. At an initial kickoff meeting in early 2017, Hightower said the group drew 130 community voices. Months later, 300 showed.

A listening tour to gauge community needs drew input from nearly 500 individuals. The things that people emphasized were “not rocket science,” in Hightower’s words: Better schools and opportunities for youth. More, better paying jobs. Healthier, affordable food options.

But the earliest hurdle might be instilling hope.

“There is no trust [in the hospitals]. We need to work on trust,” she quoted a respondent as saying. Even more gutting were the words of another: “There are no mental health facilities over here. The largest mental health facility on the West Side is Cook County Jail.”

Whether West Side United can will and invest the community to better health remains to be seen. But the initiative is young, and something needs to be done.

“We need a unified voice to work on these topics,” Hightower said. “We have things like disinvestment and systemic racism that are storm clouds, but we have people with umbrellas,” she said, referring to the hospitals and the citizens alike.