When Dr. Theresa Chapple-McGruder was first hired as the public health director for the Village of Oak Park in May 2021, she came into the job with a singular mindset: Keep people alive. 

With the height of the COVID-19 pandemic now behind her, Dr. Chapple has set her sights on keeping people alive in a different way — by creating a survey.

Chapple, along with the village’s epidemiologist, Emma Betancourt, are working together to create the first in a series of community-focused surveys that will, in part, help determine the factors impacting Oak Park’s Black and BIPOC residents’ health outcomes. 

Chapple explained when she first began working in the Oak Park Department of Public Health, there wasn’t an epidemiologist on staff nor any data about chronic diseases, maternal health, or environmental health hazards. She said the only data available was for communicable diseases such as STIs and HIV.

“One of my major goals in 2022 was to go to our village board and ask for funding to do an annual health survey and hire an epidemiologist to lead the survey and analyze the data,” Chapple said. 

“We were given that funding to start our 2023 and we are 10 months into that year. The hope is that we can get this survey off of the ground and start collecting data on the prevalence of diseases and be able to look at that data by race, age, gender, so we can get a full understanding of what the community needs are.”

Chapple told Growing Community Media that Betancourt was hired in August 2023 after the Village received a $350,000 grant through the Strengthening Illinois Public Health Administration for three years from the Illinois Department of Public Health grant on July 1, 2023. 

“I am an epidemiologist by training but I always like to say I am not the Village’s epidemiologist, I am the Village’s health department director. I can’t do two jobs,” she said.  

“In the time that we didn’t have an epidemiologist, I was able to work with outside consultants to help design the health survey. So as soon as Emma joined our team, she was provided with the health survey and her job is now to deploy it in the community to get us back data as quickly as possible so that we can start to make recommendations based on it.” 

Lee Edwards, a Growing Community Media contributing reporter, recently sat down with Chapple to talk about the new initiative.

This is a condensed version of the conversation. It has been edited lightly for space and clarity.

Growing Community Media:  With regards to the survey, is it based just on health outcomes? Is it necessary to have community or residents’ input as part of that survey’s creation? 

Chapple: That’s a good question. We did not have community input in this round of survey development, but we did talk about different ways to get community input. And so, our plan right now is to have the survey as a base, and then share the results with the community and say, “Does this resonate with you? Did we ask the right questions? Are there different things that we should have been getting from you?” Help us with the context with the numbers that we have. There’s two different approaches: you can go to the community with nothing and ask for something or you can go to the community and ask how well did we do it. That’s the approach we ended up with. 

Growing Community Media:  What is the timeline for the survey that is informed by science? 

Chapple: If I had my way it would have been yesterday. I am hoping to get it done in 2023, but I would not be shocked if it went out in the first quarter of 2024.

Growing Community Media:  What is a reasonable expectation the public should have for these reports and surveys? How much time and resources does it take to complete these kinds of reports? 

Chapple: Good data takes time. When we’re really thinking about what it’s going to take for us to have good data on the health of the community, I would not think that a one-time data annual survey is going to give us information. Once we get the data from the survey, we want to take it to the community and see if it resonates with them, to see if there’s a different way that they would have preferred us to ask this question, things like that. I really see this first year as being kind of a feedback loop with the data in the community. And then year two, really tweaking the survey based off of what we found from year one. And then once we have two years’ worth of data points, we can start to say, are we getting consistent data, or do we think that one year was a fluke? And then we have three years’ worth of data that’s a trend and based on trend data, you make your program based on everything you’ve learned. 

Growing Community Media: When you think about all this work that’s necessary, is the village able to provide enough resources to make sure that all those goals stay on track?

Chapple: The village has agreed to an annual health survey as part of our budget. We are in our budget cycle right now. And this would be the second time that an annual health survey is in our budget. The budget gets presented now for the following year. So, for 2024 we have asked for the second annual health survey to be in there. The health department has found external funding to support an epidemiologist. So we have three years where epidemiologist salaries are covered based on external support.

Growing Community Media:  Have you received support for these efforts from the board of trustees and the village president?

Chapple: I think since it’s so new, I think it’s kind of waiting to see what happens with this. I haven’t gotten any opposition to it. But this isn’t an aspect of healthcare that people are talking about because we’re just so new and getting up and running.

Growing Community Media: As part of this survey, will racism be viewed as a public health issue as well as low income or any other societal issues?

Chapple: I totally believe that racism is a public health issue and I believe that poverty makes people sick. That’s just the kind of the things that I bring with me as I’m running the health department. What the questions and surveys will focus on more are more around social determinants of health as well as the current health status. So yes, there will be questions about age and income and experiences that people face as a result of how they present to the world. What comes out of it is what it could be up to the data, and it won’t be skewed by my preconceived values, but questions will be in the survey and will pick the results as they come. 

Growing Community Media:  What does that look like to rebuild the health department three years after the pandemic?

Chapple: Challenging. It’s challenging on all levels, I would say.  One of the challenges is the workforce. The pandemic has been extremely tough for public health practitioners to work in. All in the news throughout the pandemic you heard about health department officials being harassed and all that. So, it’s really hard to say to people to come work in the health department if they know that they have the potential for harassment. The public health workforce has a turnover rate similar to police. Yet many people talk about what’s happening and how hard it is to recruit for the police. But you don’t hear that similar refrain when it comes to people talking about the need for good public health practitioners. There’s also the situation of public health that has kind of been overlooked for many years. Public health has been underfunded for as long as public health has existed. And we see that that’s a problem whenever a big issue comes.

Growing Community Media:  How does that make you feel about the work that you’re doing, especially since a portion of the work is focused on helping people from underserved portions of the community as well as people from bipoc backgrounds or different sexual orientations?

Chapple: I have been in public health since 2000, so 23 years doing this work. It is my jam. I am dedicated to the health of the population and will always continue to fight for it in good times and bad times. 

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