Clinic facilities

How a Tampa health clinic is breaking down barriers to care in black communities

When people tell Dr. Lisa Merritt they don’t trust doctors, she says it’s “heartbreaking.”

“I have to laugh and watch them and say, ‘you’re going to tell me that, and I’m a doctor,'” said Merritt, the founder and executive director of the Multicultural Health Institute (MHI) in Sarasota, Florida. “But they feel comfortable, to be honest with me, because that’s how people really feel.”

Merritt has dedicated her career to improving access to public health resources for minority communities, and as a black physician, she has first-hand insight into the barriers to care.

She founded MHI in California in 1995 with a group of physicians and community advocates.

In 2006, the ICM headquarters moved to Sarasota, after Merritt moved there to help oversee her mother’s care following a cancer diagnosis.

Matthew Pedie

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WUSF Public Media

CIM intern Onyx Hadwin and Dr. Lisa Merritt.

The ICM office that Merritt shares with an intern is tucked away in the corner of a Goodwill employment connection center in Newtown. The office walls are filled with certificates, brightly colored posters and newspaper clippings highlighting the work of Merritt and the institute.

Before the pandemic, ICM hosted wellness fairs, offering free health screenings for things like blood pressure and diabetes. Merritt conducted a long-term study of health care in Sarasota’s historically black Newtown neighborhood. And the institute trains volunteers, called community navigators, who connect people to health resources, from help with prescriptions to housing and food assistance.

When COVID-19 hit, MHI responded, tracking the spread of the disease and organizing vaccination campaigns.

In a video on the group’s Facebook page from March 2021, Merritt chatted through an open car window with two women during a vaccination drive outside a church in Bradenton, a town on Florida’s Gulf Coast. , just north of Sarasota.

“How do you feel, mentally, after the second dose? ” she asked.

“Relieved. I’m in the community all the time,” one replied.

Pop-up vaccination clinics like this were a way for Merritt to fill a gap in health care.

Merritt said MHI was able to look at the data and show how COVID was affecting the community differently in different zip codes.

    Dr Lisa Merritt stands in front of two paintings of her mother
Dr Lisa Merritt stands in front of two paintings of her mother, Eleanor Meritt, at the John and Mabel Ringling Museum, Sarasota. Photo: provided

In North Sarasota, where the population is predominantly black and Latino, they found the positivity rate to be higher than neighboring communities.

“These are the essential workers,” Merritt said. “These are the people who couldn’t stay at home and work from home. They were multigenerational homes.

She said she understood why there was distrust of health care providers in a community that had direct experience with a segregated health system.

“While vaccines were sent to gated communities and people’s friends, it did little to engender more trust in the power structure that governs people’s lives.”

But she said access to information, testing and vaccines were bigger barriers than mistrust.

Overcoming these barriers has required working with public health agencies and other partners to make vaccines available in the community.

“And then we would literally do hundreds of people on a Saturday and Sunday in a church or a community center. And we are able to literally level the playing field.”

In addition to hosting pop-up clinics, information and education sessions, Merritt mentors future healthcare leaders at ICM.

She said former interns have gone on to become lawyers, doctors, artists… but they all have an interest in public health.

“The pandemic has kind of opened my eyes to the wide range of failures that exist, kind of at all levels of the public health field,” said former intern Ormond Derrick.

Derrick, who holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and global health from the New College of Florida in Sarasota, developed a COVID-19 access guide in English and Spanish for MHI, and he helped provide people with the things they needed, like information about testing sites, or how to use pulse oximeters to measure blood oxygen levels.

“It’s a very simple, life-saving intervention tool,” Derrick said of the pulse oximeter. “I have saved my family’s life, in particular, because I am using the same skills I learned at ICM to help them when they have been diagnosed with COVID.”

Derrick said MHI shows how the healthcare system should work. He called it an “incredible model of how to do health promotion and health equity work and really replicate it no matter what.”

ICM intern Olympia Fulcher said working at ICM has shown them a different way of thinking about public health.

“You don’t have to be a doctor or an epidemiologist to really make a difference in a public health setting,” they said.

Fulcher, who has a degree in computer science, created an app so community members who don’t have internet access can find useful information about COVID-19 on their phones.

“And that’s really what cemented me, that even though I feel like I’m doing math all day, it really has an impact on the community,” they said.

Fulcher described Merritt as “one of the most inspiring people I have ever met. She had a huge impact on me. Huge.”

Derrick echoed that sentiment. “She’s like the closest thing to an angel I think I’ve ever met, but of course, she’s just an amazing human being at the end of the day,” he said.

Merritt said her own career has been shaped by great role models. Now she’s giving back and helping shape the next generation of public health advocates.

“I am grateful to have had incredible role models and to be part of a link in a chain. And I hope to inspire other young people.