A new cooperative health research center in Johnstown could serve as a model for national response to looming challenges in health care, leaders say.

The 1889 Jefferson Center for Population Health officially opened Tuesday in the Crown American Building in Downtown Johnstown, promising to address problems that plague the region and nation.

“In the world of population health – whether it’s diabetes, opioids, obesity etc. – our goal is to dramatically improve those conditions among the citizens of Cambria and Somerset counties,” 1889 Foundation Chairman James Hargreaves said during ribbon-cutting ceremonies. 

The 1889 Foundation has committed to a five-year, $7.5 million partnership with Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson University Jefferson College of Population Health. The center’s lofty goal begins with gathering data and working with local organizations already battling the problems, Hargreaves said. 

It’s all about working together, center Executive Director Trina Thompson said Tuesday. 

“I ask you today, each one of you, how you will become involved in improving the health of this county and our neighboring counties?” she said. “We are all in this together, and we all need to help.”

More than 100 people filled the main lobby at the Crown American Building for Tuesday’s program, which also featured an open house in the center’s second-floor suite. 

Dignitaries included local officials and administrators from Thomas Jefferson University, as well as representatives from state and national health organizations. 

The 1889 Foundation is the former Conemaugh Health Foundation. It was renamed and restructured as a “conversion” foundation to oversee $110 million from the 2014 acquisition of nonprofit Conemaugh Health System by the for-profit Duke-LifePoint Healthcare.

Its mission focuses on areas such as population health and disease management to “support innovative programs and initiatives that improve and transform the overall health and wellness of our region.”

The partnership with Thomas Jefferson University was announced last year. Dr. David Nash, dean of Jefferson College of Population Health, recalled last year’s announcement during Tuesday’s program. 

“We were going to work together to build the first ever rural population health research center in conjunction with the 1889 team and our colleagues,” Nash said. 

The center is structured to identify evidence-based programs shown to significantly impact specific populations affected by health issues, Nash said. As preventive medicine takes the forefront, communities must take a collaborative approach, he added.

“I’m supremely confident that the 1889 Jefferson Center will serve as the beginning of that journey, and – with our colleagues who are here from Duke LifePoint today – potentially as a model for what other conversion foundations across the country might be able to do,” Nash said. 

Hargreaves acknowledged the new population health center faces huge obstacles.

“The good news: We think we have a very special partnership,” Hargreaves said. “The bad news: We have no shortage of challenges.”

A variety of health care, economic, social and cultural issues have combined to make Cambria County one of the five least healthy counties in Pennsylvania, according to the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation. Nash said the new population health center will look at all those factors and prioritize a response. 

The 1889 Foundation’s role will not end with identifying and prioritizing issues, Hargreaves said. 

“We are also excited that once Jefferson (college) identifies those priorities, the 1889 Foundation will be in a position to fund further expertise in these areas – not just to identify, but to solve the many challenges which we face,” Hargreaves said. 

Randy Griffith is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 532-5057. Follow him on Twitter @PhotoGriffer57.

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