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Q+A: How Health Care Is Being ‘Disrupted’ in West Philadelphia

Loretta Sweet Jemmott, PhD, vice president of Health and Health Equity and professor in the College of Nursing and Health Professions, is a disruptor of health care because she cares. Jemmott, who grew up in West Philadelphia, has been talking to the communities in the West Philadelphia Promise Zone to discover and meet their needs for health concerns, including cancer.

In early summer of 2021, Jemmott was unanimously selected to receive the Lazarex Cancer Foundation Disruptor Award for being an individual who has responded with urgency, taking action to combat low minority participation in cancer clinical trials and has disrupted the current status quo by raising awareness about existing problems, putting patients’ interests first and demonstrating a commitment to working on solutions. 

Jemmott receiving the Disruptor Award during the Disrupting the System IV Summit hosted by the Lazarex Cancer Foundation. Photo credit: Lazarex Cancer Foundation.

Around the same time, Jemmott was also appointed to the Mayor’s Commission on Aging, an advisory group focused on how to serve Philadelphia’s increasingly diverse aging population, alongside Laura Gitlin, PhD, dean of the College.

Jemmott’s work to educate and bring cancer care services to the West Philadelphia neighborhoods grew out of her original program, called We’re Here Because We Care, a community engagement-focused health initiative. Jemmott and her team worked for two years meeting and speaking with over 11,000 community residents. They had conversations, conducted focus groups and had one-on-one coffee and lunch times in each of the 10 neighborhoods in the Promise Zone. Based on the voices and concerns of the community, seven areas of health concerns – from chronic diseases and behavioral health, to environmental health and physical activity – emerged and the Community Wellness Hub was created.

Jemmott then received funding from the Lazarex Cancer Foundation to create an initiative for cancer education and health care in underserved communities, which was the perfect segue to address one of the top health concerns of the communities. She spoke with Drexel News Blog about her work in the community and what the recognition from the Lazarex Cancer Foundation means.

Can you describe the work that led to being recognized by the Lazarex Cancer Foundation?

The initiative is called Community Impact: Conquering Cancer Together. This program is for residents in the West Philadelphia Promise Zone neighborhoods, the 10 neighborhoods that are right around Drexel University. What we do is provide information, prevention and services to people so that they can reduce their risk for cancer and cancer burden. The goal is to really increase cancer awareness, knowledge and reduction strategies, as well as connect people to the services needed, such as screening, treatment and clinical trials.

It’s called “We’re Here Because We Still Care” because the initial one was called “We’re Here Because We Care.” We still care, and so we went back to the community again to listen to their attitudes and their beliefs about cancer, risks, prevention, screenings, treatment and clinical trials to see what the community would say. And based on that, we took their voices and created a booklet, brochures and information based on what the community wanted. So that’s what we are doing now.

Also, with part of this funding we were able to create the Lazarex Cancer Wellness Hub. That is where we will have all of the cancer education workshops, support group sessions and things like that. We’ll also have a cancer care companion, who’s going to be in the facility connecting people to services.

We have seven Neighborhood Health Ambassadors that we hired and trained, who are residents of the community in those 10 neighborhoods. They do all the outreach and community engagement work to recruit people, tell them about the cancer work that we’re doing, sign them up for services and refer them to the Lazarex Cancer Wellness Hub and to the cancer care companion.

We’re partnering with Abramson Cancer Center. They’re also funded by the Lazarex Cancer Foundation to do impact, and their grant is for clinical trials – to get more people into clinical trials and to resolve the barriers they have for clinical trials. Our part is the community part: getting the community more engaged and into their services, including clinical trials.

Can you talk more about the Ambassadors?

Yes, that’s the exciting part! We’ve got a team of residents that work with us, who really know the community better than we do and they have the ability to connect with Ms. Jones or Mr. Johnny, which is different than my approach might have been. And they’re sharing their struggles and strategies. They’re also spreading the word about cancer education and risk reduction themselves. They are honored and proud to be walking the streets, talking about health in a way that can save their neighbors’ lives. It’s a great model

So, we’re able to do that outreach and engagement with all kinds of cancer risk reduction and health promotion strategies. And our partner, Abramson Cancer Center, comes out and does programs with us to talk about screenings, cancer education, treatment and really connect to people.

Why are the Ambassadors and the Lazarex Cancer Wellness Hub key to this program?

Something we learned in the community conversations is about fear – it’s a big one. There’s fear in the community – the mistrust of the doctors, anxiety around this stuff and you have to deal with mistrust of cancer, of screening, of treatment and of the health care system. To deal with that, we decided that people really need a warm connection to feel safe and comfortable with who they’re talking to about these issues. The community asked for somewhere where they can come talk to somebody that feels trusting, warm and safe. So, that’s why we built the Community Wellness Hub, and now the Lazarex Cancer Wellness Hub.

We decided to have a warm handoff. If Ms. Jones is feeling anxious, scared and worried because she thinks she found something in her chest, she has a little lump and she doesn’t know what to do. She calls us and then we bring her over to the Lazarex Cancer Wellness Hub, we’ll talk with her and then we’ll connect her to services at Abramson. But we’re not just going to connect her to services there, we’re going to get her over there safely and do the warm handoff. We’re going to have Ms. Jones come with us to talk to Ms. Smith over there who is a cancer navigator, who is going to walk her through it and welcome her. So, you’re not going to walk into a building and be all nervous. You’ll walk in and be a little nervous, but you’ve got somebody who is going to meet you right there, is going to take you where you have to go and walk you through all the services and programs. Having that kind of partnership and that kind of warm handoff really reduces some of the stress that Black and brown people have when it comes to health care and mistrust.

We’re talking about disrupting the system! We changed the whole process. I have this Disrupter Award because we changed the lay of the land about how we do things around here, to try and improve health care for Black and brown people to get the services they need related to cancer.

We’re just trying to really empower people to make some great decisions and empower people with the skills they need to be able to talk to the doctor themselves. Because another issue, or barrier, was not knowing how to advocate for themselves, not knowing how to talk to somebody about this. So, we have workshops and strategies about how to talk to your doctor to get your needs met. How do you break down some of those barriers that block you from getting your health care needs? It’s really disrupting the system in terms of creating a different approach to getting the kind of care people need in low income communities.

What are the next steps?

Oh, there’s still more to do. We just finished training the next wave of ambassadors. They just received their training and they’re getting ready to go out into the community. And we are now organizing workshops and seminars from Sept. 1 through December to pilot test how this is going to work out.

We’ll set up workshops and community chats. Because of COVID-19, some things are still going to be virtual. We’re just trying to keep it going and understanding that people have to be safe. And at the Community Wellness Hub, we are now sponsoring COVID testing and COVID vaccinations every Thursday in partnership with the medical school.

What do you consider successful about the Community Wellness and Lazarex Cancer Wellness Hubs?

It’s because people trust us. It’s all about the trust. People think you can come into a community and gain trust right away. No, no, no! It takes time to build trust. And you have to be consistent and authentic, transparent and all the things that’ll make you trustworthy for you to be trusted. So, the reason while we’re still here is because we still care. And it’s because they still trust us.

The community members see me at different places, and I keep coming back. I’m going to the meetings at night, I’ll hang out with them on Saturdays at different events, and I walk the streets with them. As we move forward that’s really critical to engagement. You can’t say we’re engaging with the community and not go out into the community. And you can’t get people to come to programs by giving them flyers and think they’re going to come – because that does not work. You need to go down to the barbershops, the laundry mats, to the hair salons, to churches and to the civic associations to explain what you’re trying to do and to invite them in an engaging way and to answer all the questions.

There might be an evening meeting, a Saturday meeting or a Sunday after church meeting, but whatever it is, they will tell you where to be. And then they will see whether you’ll come or not. And if you don’t come, you’re just like everybody else talking the talk. You have to talk the talk and walk the walk.

It’s about really being a part of the community; giving a voice to the voiceless. That’s what we try to do. If I can help somebody raise their voice up, to be able to get the care they need and the services that are rightfully theirs, then let me raise my voice, let me lift my cup, let me lift them up so they can begin to take care of themselves. They’re tired of people coming in and doing for them. They want to be trained themselves to do for themselves. They’re tired of being left out the table. They want to be at the table. They’re tired of being studied and nobody coming back and sharing the results.

Personally, what does the recognition from the Lazarex Cancer Foundation mean to you?

It’s an awesome thing. The Lazarex Cancer Foundation is near and dear to my heart in terms of what they are trying to do around the nation. And we are just their first site. We need to be able to replicate and create these Lazarex Cancer Wellness Hubs all over.

They will now have a neighborhood ambassador training manual to train other people around the country to be ambassadors in their own dominions. Right now, we’re working with the Black community in Philadelphia, but we’re also going to work with Latino and other African American communities. There are other folks all over that really need this kind of work.

It’s really a community engaged process to be able to do this. Dana Dornsife leads the team. This is her vision, and my job was to just make her vision come true! So, I’m excited about it. She’s an awesome woman who is really championing this cause of cancer clinical trials and getting services to people who are underserved so that they too can live a longer, healthier life. That’s part of my mission, whatever we can do – one dose at a time, one step at a time, one treatment at a time. We here to help; we’re here to serve. It’s exciting!

This initiative is dear to President Fry’s heart, too. Dana Dornsife is an important person to Drexel. We really value her and her support of the University. We’re here to help her reach her vision in any way we can. Because she’s a strong supporter of Drexel, so we are a strong supporter of her.

Is there anything that you want to add?

Yeah, I have an awesome team who works with me. I couldn’t do this by myself. Marcia Penn is my right-hand person – she kind of leads this initiative with me. And our doctoral student, her name is Amira Clemens and she’s pre-doc in the program at the College of Nursing and Health Professions. Then we have a team of students and volunteers – so it’s really an awesome approach to making a difference.

The teamwork makes the dream work, we say! It takes a team. It takes the community leaders to partner with us. I couldn’t do this without our civic association leadership or our faith-based leadership partners. It really takes a team to do this deep-dive community engagement approach. So, it’s important to partner with the community and the people. Let them be part of your change, your studies, your workshops and your programs.

Media interested in speaking with Jemmott should contact Annie Korp, news manager, at 215-571-4244 or

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