Campus News

Community partnerships ignite local impact for Keck School of Medicine of USC

Multifaceted Trojan endeavors extend from delivering important health info to providing direct service, broadening youth ambitions to science benefiting USC’s neighbors

Wayne Lewis November 28, 2023
Keck School students at Midnight Mission
Keck School students volunteering at Los Angeles’ Midnight Mission in the city’s historic Skid Row.

As a nexus for academic medicine, the Keck School of Medicine of USC fosters solutions for the biggest problems in human health through the traditional pillars of education, research and care. Its links to the communities living alongside USC’s campuses in Los Angeles — one of the most diverse cities anywhere — has led to local impact becoming its fourth pillar.

“We’ve wanted to be the best neighbors possible,” said Lourdes Baezconde-Garbanati, PhD, MPH, a distinguished professor of population and public health sciences and the Keck School’s associate dean for community initiatives. “Part of that is the responsibility to elevate health and reduce the burden of disease in our surrounding communities.”

Collaborating with the people they seek to serve is foundational to the efforts of faculty, trainees and staff. The Keck School maintains 32 active partnerships with organizations that promote health and wellness in the Los Angeles area.

Baezconde-Garbanati emphasizes that community impact is a priority at all levels, including leadership.

“Commitment to aiding our communities permeates everything we do,” she said. “It’s essential, and it goes all the way up to Dean Carolyn Meltzer and President Carol L. Folt.”

Community education

With research programs spanning a host of health conditions across the lifespan and at scales from cell to society, the Keck School is an engine for advancing human health. The drive to convert scientific findings to real-world impact spurs a variety of activities ensuring that key information that may lead to healthier choices is transmitted to USC’s neighbors in a culturally appropriate way. Many initiatives engage community members for key advice, and many train community members to help spread healthy messages.

“It’s important to reach out and accelerate the information back into the communities,” said Baezconde-Garbanati, who is also associate director of community outreach and engagement at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center. “Whether we tackle diabetes, heart disease, cancer or other issues, we have the chance to save lives and improve the health and well-being of our neighbors.”

Programs of service are very popular, across the board. The type of people who choose to be part of our school have strong motivation to serve the community, wherever the biggest need may be.

In the face of the COVID pandemic, major collaborations led by faculty addressed vaccine hesitancy. One initiative co-led by Baezconde-Garbanati, VaccinateLA, resulted in inoculation rates 30% higher than expected in the South and East L.A. communities it focused upon.

Other programs encompass everything from lessons about sun safety to messages promoting vital medical screenings. The Keck School also regularly shares evidence-based guidelines with about 190 community-based agencies. In parallel, researchers presenting conclusions about issues such as tobacco use to governmental bodies has contributed to new policies.

Youth educational programs

The fact that certain populations are underrepresented in medicine — and the health sciences as a whole — has far-reaching implications for health equity. Members of the Keck School are doing their part to create a pipeline that increases representation of underserved groups, in the process planting the seeds of prosperity in nearby communities.

“We hope to play a part in lifting our communities and changing the trajectory that could have been in line for local kids,” Baezconde-Garbanati said. “The idea is not that they’re at-risk, but rather at-promise — full of potential but lacking advantages that youth in other communities may have. Showing them how they can realize that promise in STEM-oriented areas opens their minds to possibilities they couldn’t imagine before.”

An array of programs introduce local youth, from third-graders through people in their 20s, to career opportunities in medicine, allied disciplines and even technical areas farther afield —providing training and experience as appropriate. The Keck School’s youth educational initiatives are active in 15 L.A.-area schools and bring upwards of 1,000 students to campus on a regular basis.

Neighborhood wellness

For faculty, trainees and staff of the Keck School, dedication to healing does not end at the clinic doors. Many are inspired to go out and extend their efforts and expertise into nearby communities — even into people’s homes when the need arises.

“Programs of service are very popular, across the board,” Baezconde-Garbanati said. “The type of people who choose to be part of our school have strong motivation to serve the community, wherever the biggest need may be.”

The USC Street Medicine program is a prime example of this spirit. The team meets L.A.’s unhoused people where they are, on their own terms, to provide care that breaks down obstacles to treatment and mitigates the health risks they face.

Research & the community

In addition to education, outreach and service, many scientists at the Keck School direct their investigations to understand and offer solutions for the health threats of greatest concern to the school’s neighbors. The model of community-based participatory research — engaging the people who are meant to benefit from the findings throughout the process — is common.

“Research plays a really important role in understanding the challenges, threats and risks, allowing us to really think about how we can develop effective, tailored interventions,” said Michele Kipke, PhD, professor of pediatrics and of population and public health sciences at the Keck School and USC’s associate vice president for strategic health alliances. “We want to work in partnership with our local communities. In many cases, they have much better ideas about how to understand risk and think about personalized approaches to reducing that risk.”

Several large, federally supported research programs zero in on disparities in outcomes for cancer, diabetes and other conditions in local communities — and reinforce that work with community education and youth educational programs.

Another crucial facet of the Keck School’s efforts involves welcoming Angelenos from underserved populations as participants in clinical trials. For too long, biomedical research in humans has lacked inclusivity, a contributing factor to health disparities affecting Black, Indigenous and People of Color, women, LGBTQIA populations and others. The Southern California Clinical and Translational Science Institute, a collaboration of the Keck School, Childrens Hospital Los Angeles and the L.A. County Department of Health, spearheads efforts to diversify clinical trials.

“We talk a lot about promoting health equity, and broader representation in clinical research is how you get to health equity,” Kipke said. “We don’t want anyone left out.”