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BENNINGTON — Caring for people when they're sick is one thing.

Taking into account other things that contribute to health, and helping people before they're sick, is another.

In a new partnership, Bennington College and Southwestern Vermont Medical Center plan to offer six students paid, health-related internship opportunities this winter in an inaugural Population Health Fellowship. Population health transforms the healthcare model from seeing patients only when they're sick, to partnering with people to address their social, environmental and economic issues before they become sick, according to a media release from the college.

"This partnership is a unique opportunity for students to gain real-world experience in transforming healthcare," Jim Trimarchi, director of planning for Southwestern Vermont Healthcare, said in the release. "SVMC and the wider Bennington community will benefit from the ideas, creativity, and energy these students will bring to one of the largest challenges of our time."

During field work term, the college's annual internship experience, each fellow will work closely in their specific focus area, including information technology, finance and communications, transitional care, Blueprint for Health (opioid response and social determinants of health), RiseVT (community health), and nutrition and food security, under the mentorship of a member of SVMC's Population Health team, according to the release.

SVMC has hosted field work term students over the last three years or so, Trimarchi said. The idea of having a specific population health cohort emerged out of conversations last February between SVMC officials and Faith McClellan, associate dean of work-integrated learning at Bennington College.

Officials working in SVMC's population health group — a broad group of about 12 people working on anticipated transitions to value-based healthcare focused on keeping people healthy — agreed to be mentors in the program.

"This will be our first year to give it a try, and see how it goes," Trimarchi said.

McClellan said the partnership represents "a real win-win between the college and the community," working together to solve critical challenges in population health.

"Students have often found that local work experiences deepen their connections to the town, [and] expand their options for living and working locally after graduation," she said.

The work term runs Jan. 6 - Feb. 14, 2020. SVMC provided a small grant to Bennington College to provide payment to the fellows, Trimarchi said.

Students will be paid the equivalent of the state minimum wage, $10.78, for 200 hours of work, McClellan said.

Bennington College initially screens the candidates and passes along the ones they think are the best fit, Trimarchi said. SVMC hopes to wrap up their interviewing and decision-making this month, he said.

Leaders have "a suite of ideas" they'd like students to work on, but "really, we want to get the students in here and find out where their interests lie, and try to see if we can leverage their interests," Trimarchi said.

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"There's so much work to be done in this space that just about anything they're interested in, we could use a hand in," he said.

The fellowship will include regularly scheduled convenings of fellows and supervisors, similar to the college's Museum Fellows Term and Lucille Lortel Foundation Fellowships in Theatre, combined with an apprenticeship-like mentorship structure that gives students exposure to specific career paths in population health, according to the release.

Although the college's visual arts, literature and theatre programs have historically been its most popular areas of study, science and mathematics are the fast-growing sector of student field work interest, according to the release. Those areas represented 11 percent of students' 2019 internships.

The Population Health Fellowship will also work in tandem with the college's three-year collaboration to address the systemic causes of food insecurity in Bennington, of which SVMC is also a key partner, according to the release.

The effort aims to address the pressing concern of food insecurity in the area and to develop an interdisciplinary and responsive humanities curriculum with students, faculty and the community, creating a model that other institutions can learn and build from.

Food insecurity is broadly defined as the household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.

In 2017, an estimated one in eight Americans were food insecure, equating to 40 million Americans including more than 12 million children, according to Feeding America. According to the Vermont Foodbank, 11.9 percent of Vermonters — 74,520 people — are food-insecure. Of those people, 40 percent do not likely qualify for federal nutrition programs.

Overall population health overlaps with social determinants of health, like access to food, Trimarchi said.

"Medical care is only one component that keeps you healthy," he said. "Your housing, the food you eat, your employment status, your social connections in the community — all of these are very important components."

SVHC is transitioning more to helping individuals with social determinants of health, he said. Currently, individuals are screened for things like possible food insecurity, mental health challenges or experiences of violence, but coordinating access to resources addressing such challenges has proven difficult, Trimarchi said.

"Currently, we don't really have a robust response to that," he said. "We're working with community partners to do that. That's really the change, the transformation. It's really about building robust processes and systems so that any of those social determinants that impact people, we have some pathways to community partners to help address it."

Trimarchi said he's hopeful population health fellows will do some of that work on how to better connect people with resources, and possibly analyze data on social determinants of health as well.

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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