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Profile: Doctor Shows Students at Rutgers How to Learn from One Another

Denise Rodgers heads programs that bring together professionals from different disciplines, aims to improve healthcare in Newark

denise rodgers
Dr. Denise Rodgers

Name: Denise V. Rodgers

Who she is: Vice chancellor for interprofessional programs, Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences; chairwoman, Healthy Greater Newark ACO

Why she matters: Rodgers heads up Rutgers University’s “interprofessional programs,” which bring together faculty and students from different healthcare fields. This approach reflects the future of medicine, when doctors, nurses, physical therapists, psychologists, social workers, and others will work on the same team.

This initiative was expanded when Rutgers merged with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, which Rodgers led as its last president.

Two years after the merger: Rodgers said the consolidation helped reduce some of the bureaucratic boundaries to collaboration. “What do the sociologists and the psychologists and the anthropologists have to teach us about communities and the behavior of groups that live within communities, and how can we effectively modify those behaviors?”

More bureaucracy Rodgers said coordination is more challenging when it comes to University Hospital, since it is not a part of Rutgers, as UMDNJ was. But she added that they still work together closely: University Hospital’s medical staff are faculty members at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.

A many-faceted role: Rodgers also is working to improve how healthcare is delivered in Newark. For example, she is one of the leaders of a Newark-based undertaking funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s New Jersey Health Initiative. It will build a wide-ranging partnership among different groups, aimed at creating a culture of health.

Rodgers said potential efforts could include integrating age-appropriate health-promoting texts for use as children learn how to read, or providing psychological support groups for residents who’ve been traumatized by violence.

Health impact assessments: Rodgers is also working on the New Jersey Health Impact Collaborative, which brings Rutgers’ medical professionals together with planning experts for “health impact assessments” -- tools that are intended to take into account how major development projects will affect residents’ health.

Rodgers noted that Newark Mayor Ras Baraka is interested in bringing development to the city, and said these assessments could contribute to this growth.

How the different parts fit together: Rodgers sees interprofessional programs being essential to reducing healthcare disparities in Newark.

“We rely on community health workers, we rely on people working in community-based agencies that help find people jobs, or help find people housing. I mean all of those, if we think about it appropriately, are part of the larger healthcare team,” she said. “It’s hard to be healthy if you’re homeless, right?”

Medicaid ACO: Rodgers is the chairwoman of Newark’s Medicaid accountable care organization, one of three statewide that aim to coordinate care among different healthcare providers, so that patients receive the healthcare they need before illnesses become crises. For example, ACO officials want to help residents with chronic conditions like diabetes manage their conditions to avoid repeated hospital trips. The Newark ACO is in the process of hiring an executive director.

“The family doctor in me wants to say, ‘How do we actually begin to work with patients so that we prevent them from developing the chronic illnesses in the first place’ -- and some of that focus obviously has to be on children,” Rodgers said.

Making change happen: Rodgers says the ultimate success of the ACO and the foundation-funded initiative both depend on cooperation between different Newark-area hospitals, employers, and other stakeholders. She sees their joint efforts potentially benefiting from a broader change in healthcare funding, from paying providers for the volume of services they deliver to paying them more on quality and cost measurements that are intended to improve residents’ health.

Where Rodgers grew up: Flint, MI, where her father was a psychologist who taught at a community college and her mother was the first African-American nurse in Flint’s public schools.

Her career inspiration: Rodgers enjoyed hearing stories from her mother about her work, as well as the TV show “Marcus Welby.” While she said she became a doctor because she wanted to help people, she has always focused on teaching patients how they can improve their own health. She practiced as a family doctor, including taking care of four generations of the same family.

Where she lives: Montclair, since 1997. She moved there from Oakland, CA, and was looking for a place that offered strong, diverse public schools. Her daughter Zori, 17, is a high school senior.

Hobbies: When she has time, she enjoys movies. Favorites include “The Sound of Music” and the “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” movies.

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