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Dr. Ormella Cummings was named North Mississippi Health Services' new Chief Strategy, Health Equity and Inclusion Officer in late September. In her newly expanded role, Cummings will work with partner agencies with the goal of improving health care access throughout the region.

TUPELO • Dr. Ormella Cummings is resolute in her definition of health equity: It means everyone, no matter who they are, has the same access to health care.

“Health equity really means that we want every single person to be able to maximize their health experience based on the resources that either they have available to them there or the resources we can help them find,” said Cummings, who was named North Mississippi Health Services' new Chief Strategy, Health Equity and Inclusion Officer in late September.

In her new role, Cummings will work to address community health needs throughout the area, including among groups that may not currently be getting access to the health care they need for many reasons.

Cummings said the new position is part of the health service’s overall efforts to increase the length and quality of life for patients across the region.

Cummings has worked for NMHS since 2004. She has a Ph.D. in educational and counseling psychology from the University of Mississippi. Prior to gaining her extra responsibilities, she served as NMHS’s Chief Strategy Officer.

Besides supporting NMHS’ strategic planning efforts, Cummings has led the system’s effort to better integrate lessons from assessments of community health needs into NMHS’ strategic plans NMHS President and Chief Executive Officer Shane Spees said in a press release announcing her new role.

“Our COVID-19 experience has shown that health disparities, mostly driven by social/economic factors and physical environment, are a reality and very likely determine whether an individual will become severely ill or possibly die from a clinical event such as COVID-19,” Spees said in a press release announcing Cummings’ hiring.

Spees said it’s important to address those detriments in order for NMHS to remain true to its mission.

That’s where Cummings comes in.

The ‘humble pie’

Two words describe the genesis of Cummings’ new role: “humble pie.”

According to research from County Health Raking and Roadmaps and Dr. Sanne Magnan’s Social Determinants of Health 101 for Health Care, clinical care only accounts for 20% of an individual’s health.

Cummings said that realization came as a wake up call for leadership at NMHS.

“We were humbled at that,” Cummings said. “As we looked at this model, hospitals in and of themselves, if we operate in a vacuum, will never be able to impact the length and quality of life alone.”

To tackle the other 80% of the factors that affect a person’s health, health care services like NMHS must take a holistic approach. Health behaviors, social and economic factors, and physical environment, such as nutrition, housing, transportation, physical activity, education and income level all play a role in a person’s health.

To do this, Cummings will lead a partnership effort between NMHS and other community organizations to close health disparity gaps.

Zip codes, not genetic codes

NMHS is in the infant stages of a five-year road map, guided by data from reputable resources and literature. Information from county health departments revealed the top cause of death in NMHS’s service area is heart disease. NMHS also referred to local data from the county health rankings and organizations, such as the Community Development Foundation and CREATE Foundation, to find local data that reveals trends.

According to Cummings, research shows “that zip codes are more important than genetic codes when it relates to health.”

“Even in our service area, you have some counties that are deemed healthier, again, based on the county health ranking methodology, than other counties just based on the resources they have available to them,” Cummings said.

Year One determined how to design the program by talking to people of diverse backgrounds, metrics and baselines for every county. As a result, NMHS will tackle three areas of concern across its 24-county region: obesity, physical activity, and smoking.

Year Two, the current phase, is about engaging people in the community where they are. Cummings and NMHS are working with community partners to connect with others and help share research and resources. This includes partnering with organizations outside of the NMHS brand, such as other wellness centers and partnering with educational institutions. United Way also serves as a partner because of their community impact initiative focusing on health and wellness, family stability, and academics.

Each goal is centered on the County Health Rankings model of factors shaping health and finding a community partner aligned with each one to help improve length and quality of life. Cummings said the goal for the end of the roadmap is to see a reduction in obesity, make people are more physically active, and a decrease in smoking.

With Mississippi ranks among the worst states for the health of its residents, Cummings believes there’s a way to fix that:

“Work together step in step with the common goal,” she said.

‘The same health opportunity outcomes’

In her new role, Cummings sees her overall goal as creating awareness among the community.

“It’s not recreating anything, it’s really just connecting the dots for the people,” she said. “We’re so fortunate in this area. We have so many people doing great things, and so we just want to let people know that hey, if you need help, this is where you go.”

To Cummings, the current position is a natural progression of NMHS’s mission to help the patients in each county within its coverage area based on available and unavailable resources.

“Regardless of where they are, what they look like, what their background is, what their educational level is, income … doesn’t matter," she said. "They have the same health opportunity for outcomes as anyone else would have."

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