BY COURTNEY ENLOW HALL
As the director of population health and community outreach for the SIU Center for Family Medicine, Dr. Tracey Smith has devoted her professional life to providing access and equity to people in vulnerable situations.
“When I look at something, I always look at it in terms of a system,” she said. “Whether it’s nurses being satisfied in their jobs, or crime-rate reduction, to better the system itself opens doors to change.”
Smith is at the forefront of a partnership between SIU and a handful of other groups in Springfield which is creating measurable, long-term change in communities – from better health to lower crime rates.
Smith’s focus on systemic problems dates back to the beginning of her career as a nurse. As a case manager in the public health department in her hometown of Gillespie, Smith saw gaps that desperately needed to be filled.
“We have got to do something about the things we don’t want to accept,” she says.
Thanks to what she credits as great mentoring, Smith went back to school to get her master’s degree and doctor of nursing practice degree, which now provide her the tools to change the system herself.
Smith’s focus on systemic issues came in adulthood, but her interest in social needs is lifelong. For that, she thanks her parents. Growing up on a farm, her family would often take in people who needed a job or a place to live, including young children.
“We didn’t have a lot of material possessions, but we had a lot of wealth in terms of love,” Smith said.
And like her parents, she chose to never shut doors on anyone or anything.
“I always just said ‘sure.’ I never said ‘no,’ and that opened up a lot of opportunities,” she said.
One such opportunity was SIU School of Medicine. When she started at SIU 20 years ago, there was no role like hers – one with a focus on providing access to health care for populations which are vulnerable to
systemic problems such as racism and poverty.
“That comes from having great mentors,” Smith said. “They knew they needed to have something in this direction, but I was able to determine the path. I was always able to connect with those who were helping those who were socially vulnerable. I could always investigate and take a different approach to educate, based on a person’s individual needs.”
Addressing those needs has developed into a series of endeavors implemented by SIU School of Medicine and spearheaded by Smith. The Enos Park Access to Care Collaborative, a program dedicated to increasing access to health care in the Enos Park neighborhood, began in the fall of 2015 as a three-year pilot program.
Already, it has had far-reaching implications such as improvements in health care coverage and a decrease in emergency department visits. Beyond health care measures, the project has also spurred a decrease in parolee recidivism and neighborhood crime, as well as a 50-percent increase in employment.
As Smith would say, they changed the system, and the results are overwhelmingly positive – for both the community and for Smith.
“The excitement of young students who want change, the excitement of seeing my daughter who stands up for people being bullied, the excitement of our patients – those little things keep me moving forward,” she says. “How do we create systems based on what people bring to the table rather than conform and change who they are?”
As a mother of two daughters, ages 10 and 16, Smith sees a lot of herself in her girls. Her older daughter is gravitating toward Smith’s drive to affect systemic issues.
“She’s always questioning and wondering what the next steps are, how we can change things,” Smith said.
Her younger daughter, who has autism, shares her love of people.
“You can walk into a crowded room and people just gravitate toward her,” Smith said. “If there’s anything you want your kids to have, it’s the ability to love people.”
Although Smith lives in Carlinville, she’s grateful to the Springfield community and feels deeply connected to it.
“Springfield has been trusting and open with me. I don’t just work here – I love Springfield,” she said. “The support of this community has been so important and has allowed me to do what I do.”
Photo By Terry Farmer