by Gary Axelbank
July 2, 2018
Draped across the back of her desk chair is a #not62 t-shirt. More than anyone else, Dr. Jane Bedell, who is sometimes called the ‘Bronx’s Doctor’, has the task of taking the borough’s last-place standing in State health indicators and improving them.
Dr. Bedell, a lifetime Bronxite who is the City’s Assistant Commissioner and Medical Director of the Center for Health Equity’s Bronx Neighborhood Health Action Center, collaborates with schools, hospitals, state and federal agencies, as well as parents, community leaders, and residents to address significant community health issues. She also directs a staff of public health educators, epidemiologists and health promoters at the Bronx Neighborhood Health Action Center on Arthur Avenue, south of Tremont.
“I do love what I’m doing,” Dr. Bedell told thisistheBronX in an early afternoon interview in her office at the Health Action Center. “Everyday I love to come to work, even though I’ve been doing this every day. I am one of the few people who has had the exact same title as when I started.”
She has been in this position fighting Bronx health problems for the last fifteen years. Early last month she was the recipient of the 2018 Sloan Public Service Award, which is dubbed the “Nobel Prize of City Government.” It’s given annually to six outstanding civil servants for extraordinary work performance and commitment to public service.
“This isn’t about me and my work,” she said. “It’s about the team’s work because they’re the people who this award is really honoring. When there are these high profile emergencies, like legionnaires, ebola, and terrorist attacks, people get mobilized much more acutely about health and safety. Meanwhile, we have these burning embers of real tragedies and disasters that, sadly, are every day occurrences. And that’s what we’re here for.”
Though she says she misses her days as a practitioner, she has a broader approach to solving the Bronx’ health problems than just sticking needles in people’s arms. This was likely borne from her work in the 90’s as Medical Director for Student Health at Columbia University where she first grasped a vision on how to attack community health problems.
“You’re responsible for a population of students, a very well-defined population,” she said. “Then you can say, ‘what are we doing on this college campus to promote health?’ And that starts you thinking of the bigger enviromental issues.”
That global way of thinking fueled a program in the Bronx that has revolutionized how New York City’s teens get high quality sexual health education in schools that connects them with nearby clinics. The result? Historic drops in teen pregnancy rates in the Bronx (61%) and across the City (60%).
Also under her direction, the Health Action Center on Arthur Avenue, started the City’s Health Bucks program whch provides undernourished populations with $2 coupons so they’re encouraged to shop at farmer’s markets for fresh produce. In addition to stimulating healthier nutrition, there are obvious economic advantages, too, as the farmers derive benefit from the program.
Maybe her appetite for out-of-the box problem solving was first whetted as a high school student in City as School where her education was seasoned with internships working for Rep. Bella Abzug and at the aquarium in Brooklyn.
Years later at the Health Action Center, Dr. Bedell paved the way for the ground-breaking Undesign the Redline exhibit that’s been visited by hundreds of Bronxites who now have greater understanding of the social factors around them that impact their health.
“When you grow up in a neighborhood, you think that it must have always been this way, that this is my fault or my parents’ fault. But what the exhibit shows is that there have been systematic racist policies in the case of redlining that divided this city and are still active. And they have tremendous health affects.”
Addressing those affects in comprehensive ways is what current Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett did fifteen years ago as a Deputy Commissioner when she created Health Action Centers in Harlem, Central Booklyn, and the DOH’s Arthur Avenue facility.
Predictably, Dr. Bedell views the Health Action Center as an important tool in improving community health, and it’s not only for the myriad of health services they provide. For example, After hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico there was trained staff available to help community members with their inquiries.
“The more the building can be a resource for the community and the more it can be seen as a city asset that belongs to and is held accountable by the neighborhood,” she said empahtically, “I think the more we’ll be realizing the vision, the more we’re honoring a sense of democracy, and the healthier Bronx people will be.”
About the Bronx Neighborhood Health Action Center
The Bronx Neighborhood Health Action Center offers coordinated health and social services, as well as community programs, all under one roof. It also provides a hub for Bronx community members to become involved in efforts to improve the health of their neighborhoods. Current projects include: nutrition and physical education at Bronx elementary schools; the NYC Teens Connection; and a collaboration with local organizations to decrease sugary drink consumption.