Five Questions with a New Jersey Nurse on Building Healthier Communities

In celebration of National Nurses Week, New Jersey Health Initiatives was honored to talk with Noreen Occhipinti, RN, MSN, CEN, nurse manager of the JFK Medical Center Satellite Emergency Department in Plainfield, New Jersey and a member of the Healthy Plainfield coalition, about how she is working to promote health and equity for everyone in the community.

Where has your nursing career taken you?
My 18-year career began at the former Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center, a community-based acute care hospital in Plainfield. When the hospital closed in 2008, JFK Medical Center (an affiliate of Hackensack Meridian Health) renamed the facility as its Muhlenberg Campus and opened a Satellite Emergency Department (SED), where I am now a Nurse Manager.

You are also a member of the Healthy Plainfield coalition. How did you become involved in their work?
In 2014, my employer, JFK Medical Center, launched the Plainfield Health Connections program to focus on patients who habitually use the JFK Satellite Emergency Department for conditions best served by a primary care physician. I worked with JFK Medical Center leadership to create the program and I act as the manager.

The Plainfield Health Connections team includes a social worker, a community outreach worker and a nurse practitioner, which enables us to also connect patients with the social supports they need to live a healthier life. As an example, we’ve partnered with the Plainfield YMCA to help our patients gain access to a trainer who can provide nutrition and fitness information.

When JFK Medical Center, the Plainfield Mayor’s Office, the Plainfield Health Department and about 30 community partners from other sectors began exploring the formation of the cross-sector Healthy Plainfield coalition to apply for NJHI funding in 2016, they asked me to serve as their coalition coach for the first year to help them ensure they are working cohesively toward a shared vision of a healthier community, based on my involvement with the creation of the Plainfield Health Connections team. Upon concluding the first year of our work, I transitioned from coach into the role of active coalition partner, but can still bring my coaching skills if needed.

What community health needs have you identified in Plainfield, and how did you uncover them?
We’ve identified Access to Care, Education and Obesity as our focus areas for improving health in Plainfield, based on our analysis of existing health data, and by convening focus groups and developing a survey to collect input from community members. While reviewing the earliest survey results, we realized we needed to engage a broader range of perspectives. Having a school partner within the coalition, we were able to adjust our strategy to also survey students at Barack Obama High School, as well as families and faculty at Cedarbrook Elementary.

We’ve identified Access to Care, Education and Obesity as our focus areas for improving health in Plainfield.

Does your nursing expertise provide any unique advantages or benefits?
Yes. I co-lead the Access to Care work group in the coalition with Dr. Jeanine Stephenson, DMD, MPH, Chief of Dentistry with Neighborhood Health Services Corporation. Neighborhood Health Services Corporation serves as Plainfield’s Federally Qualified Health Center. Through the coalition, I’ve been able to build a long-overdue relationship with them. I’ve made my first visit to Neighborhood Health Services Corporation and now Dr. Stephenson and I are partnering to bring their personnel to the JFK-Muhlenberg Campus Satellite Emergency Department. We want to make sure patients who visit the SED are able to get a follow-up appointment at Neighborhood Health Services Corporation within a week of their SED visit, or we work to help patients identify a primary care physician with whom they are comfortable, and whose offices are accessible. Many times, I’ve asked a patient when they hand me an insurance card, “Is this just a name on a card, or have you actually seen this doctor?”

We’re also addressing language barriers and advancing cultural competency to promote health literacy and engage stakeholders who have been traditionally underrepresented in the health conversation. Forty percent of the population in Plainfield is of Hispanic or Latino descent. We distributed our community surveys in both English and Spanish, and are partnering with the United Way of Greater Union County to disseminate information regarding topics such as hypertension,the physical activity pyramid and access to care resources in both languages.

We’ve come a long way, but rebuilding trust between the community and the coalition is important if we’re going to have a long-term impact.

I still hear comments from patients, residents and other community members who remain disappointed about the hospital’s closure, too. They are hesitant to trust the coalition partners, and part of my role is sharing those sentiments with the coalition to guide our work. We’ve come a long way, but rebuilding trust between the community and the coalition is important if we’re going to have a long-term impact.

Are there any aspects that carry over to your clinical work?
Hearing the perspectives of the coalition’s library and school partners takes me out of my nursing comfort zone in a good way. These conversations have encouraged me to think more broadly about health, and I share these insights with my own staff to help them better understand the needs of our patients. There is still room and opportunity for more of my nursing colleagues to work across sectors to promote community health. I’ve recently taken to advising new nursing graduates about opportunities to look for jobs outside hospital walls and within their communities.

Learn more about Healthy Plainfield
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Discover more NJ Nurses Who are Working to Build Healthier Communities
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Photos, top to bottom: Noreen Occhipinti, Nurse Manager of the JFK Medical Center Satellite Emergency Department in Plainfield, New Jersey (Credit: N. Occhipinti); the Healthy Plainfield leadership team, L-R: Rev. Leanora Colley, Dr. Atif Nazir, Noreen Occhipinti, Maritza Martinez, Stacy Greene and Dr. Jeannine Stephenson (Credit: N. Occhipinti).
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