Project HEAL continues momentum with more than $3M in new funding

HMH execs chat with NJBIZ about past, future work of hospital-based violence intervention program

Matthew Fazelpoor//February 27, 2023

Project HEAL continues momentum with more than $3M in new funding

HMH execs chat with NJBIZ about past, future work of hospital-based violence intervention program

Matthew Fazelpoor//February 27, 2023

As it gets set to celebrates its two-year anniversary in March, Hackensack Meridian Health announced that Project HEAL – a hospital-based violence intervention program located at Jersey Shore University Medical Center – recently received more than $3 million in new federal and state grants.

The latest grants bring the program’s total state and federal funding to roughly $8 million.

Robert Garrett, CEO of Hackensack Meridian Health, and Dr. Aakash Shah, medical director of Project HEAL and chief of addiction medicine, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health, Jersey Shore University Medical Center, recently spoke to NJBIZ about Project HEAL, its accomplishments to date, and what’s next.

Garrett opened the discussion by explaining how and why the program came together.

Robert Garrett

“It goes back to Hackensack Meridian’s commitment to transforming behavioral health,” Garrett told NJBIZ. “I think we’ve become a leader in providing behavioral health services. We teamed up and partnered with the Carrier Clinic several years ago, the largest provider of behavioral health care services in New Jersey. And we soon recognized that violence is a public health crisis and is a significant behavioral health issue. And we understood, I think, early on that health systems really needed to be part of the solution.”

Garrett pointed to stats showing that last year some 48,000 people were killed due to gun violence, equating to nearly 120 Americans per day.

“Really it’s an epidemic of unprecedented proportions,” said Garrett. “As a result of that, and because we felt it was such a big part of our mission to transform behavioral health, we did start Project HEAL a couple of years ago. Thanks to the funding from the state and federal government, they gave us an opportunity to start such a program at Jersey Shore Medical University Medical Center in Neptune.”

Garrett said this new funding will help not only sustain the current program, but hopefully enable HMH to expand it.

“Our job is to try to prevent this type of violence through early intervention in behavioral health, but also to help the victims who are unfortunately saddled with many behavioral health issues as a result of being a victim of violence,” Garrett explained. “So, we’re looking at it from both sides, from the prevention side and the from the treatment side.”

The new funds will also offer the Project HEAL team the chance to enhance its existing infrastructure by enabling them to access Monmouth County’s at-risk youth, ages 13 to 20, to provide them with the holistic support needed to break the cycle of violence.

“These investments send two very clear messages. First, our health care network and state and federal leaders understand that violence is a serious public health issue,” said Shah. “Secondly, if you have been a victim of violence, they see you, they hear you, and they are providing the resources needed to ensure that your tomorrow is better than today.”

‘A proven track record of success’

In just those two years since its inception, the program has already helped more than 400 clients in multiple ways. In total, more than 1,850 individual and group counseling sessions have been provided, along with hundreds of instances of emergency financial assistance, health screenings, informing of victims’ rights and referrals to available legal, medical and faith-based services.

Shah told NJBIZ that the services offered to clients through Project HEAL run the gamut and are tailored on a case-by-case basis.

“If what someone needs is educational opportunities, we can connect them to it. If what they need is job training and placement, we can do that for them. If what they need is emergency shelter, clothing, or food, we can do that for them,” Shah explained.

Garrett and Shah pointed out that the success of the program has hinged on gaining the trust of the community while thinking outside the box—stressing that this is an example of how HMH is adapting to “Health Care 2.0.”

Shah recounted a story involving an early intervention to protect an individual from potential gang violence, and how this type of work often puts doctors into situations that go beyond what they may have learned at medical school or through their traditional training.

“I am an emergency room doctor by training. I don’t control who comes through the door. I only control how I respond,” said Shah. “You get a call like that and there’s a decision you have to make, right? Am I going to throw up my hands and say they didn’t teach me this in medical school, this isn’t health care, this isn’t what the system usually does, and walk away? Or are we going to do something about it, save a life, and change the way we operate?”

Shah said that beyond all of the stats and numbers, that community trust is paramount.

“That kind of trust is what we are building in the communities we serve,” said Shah. “And, so, I think that’s the biggest and most important change.”

Garrett hopes to first expand the program throughout the Hackensack Meridian Health system, and then see it continue to grow across the state and beyond.

“Violence is not limited to a specific community or a specific town or county, for that matter. Unfortunately, it’s everywhere,” said Garrett. “This program has had a proven track record of success. I think that’s why the additional funding has come. And we’d like to see this really expand as a best practice elsewhere.”

Health Care 2.0

And Garrett also elaborated on how a program such as this fits into this notion of “Health Care 2.0,” as health care systems tackle more complex challenges.

“If we’re really going to transform health care, really going to address the problems that are out there today that are leading to significant health care challenges, we have to address these issues,” said Garrett. “We have to think out-of-the-box and start programs like Project HEAL.”

He also pointed to work that Hackensack is doing to help identify victims of human trafficking. That effort has included training their team and partnering with outside organizations. In September, Garrett participated in a United Nations panel to discuss developing uniform global standards to help health care providers identify and aid victims of human trafficking.

“Those are just a couple of examples of where that wasn’t really ‘Health Care 1.0,’” Garrett explained. “That’s ‘Health Care 2.0’ where we’re involved in these issues that do absolutely become a health care issue that we had not, in previous years, dealt with. But we’re proud we’re taking a lead in that respect as well.”

Garrett closed the conversation by discussing important lessons learned during the pandemic about how important it is to break down silos, engage stakeholders, and commit to collaborations and partnerships to tackle these types of challenges and issues.

“I do believe you have to have partner with other health care organizations,” said Garrett. “I think the pandemic taught us that through collaboration, through partnership, we can have even more effective outcomes,” said Garrett. “And I think that momentum from COVID needs to continue. And I’m really happy to hear that many health care systems are now recognizing violence and gun violence, specifically, as a public health crisis. That’s a good example of where partnership and cooperation hopefully will lead to some better outcomes.”