Health Tech

Inside Hackensack Meridian Health’s Violence Prevention Program

In the two years since its launch, Hackensack Meridian Health’s violence prevention program has provided medical, financial and emotional aid to more than 400 victims of violence. Government officials have taken note of this — the program recently gained $3 million in federal and state grants.

More and more healthcare leaders are beginning to treat violence as a public health issue as gun deaths and other forms of assault continue to impact communities across the country. One large health system in New Jersey is addressing this issue through a government-funded program called Project HEAL (Help, Empower and Lead). 

Hackensack Meridian Health launched Project HEAL in March 2021. The violence intervention program — which is based at Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune, New Jersey — began with funding from the New Jersey Attorney General’s office. The program has provided medical, financial and emotional aid to more than 400 victims of violence in just two years, and government officials have taken note of this. The program recently gained $3 million in federal and state grants, Dr. Aakash Shah, Project HEAL’s medical director, said in a recent interview.

“We’re no longer satisfied with simply treating someone’s post traumatic stress — we’re really laser-focused on catalyzing their post traumatic growth. In the case of Project HEAL, we do exactly that for those who have been shot, stabbed or otherwise assaulted,” he declared.

The program provides counseling, medical services, legal referrals, transportation assistance and emergency financial aid to patients at no cost. There are three main ways victims of violence find their way to Project HEAL: emergency department referrals, hospital floor referrals and community organization referrals. 

So far, Project HEAL has facilitated more than 1,850 individual and group counseling sessions. But the program does much more than provide medical and mental health services. Dr. Shah shared a memorable anecdote about a case his care team handled during the first few weeks of the program.

The care team received a call from the friend of a patient they were helping. The friend said he lived in a city about 100 miles north of Neptune and that he and the patient were both part of a gang there.

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“The gentleman said ‘It’s my understanding that you’re taking care of my boy for a couple of gunshot wounds. Thank you for that, but you need to know that if you discharge him with a prescription for an antibiotic and a little card that tells him what day and time to come back for his follow up appointment, his feet are not going to touch the streets. He’s going to be coming back to you riddled with bullets or in a body bag,’” Dr. Shah recounted.

The friend told the staff that the patient had grandparents in Asheville, North Carolina who wanted to take him in. He said that the patient wanted the same thing, but he had no money to get there. 

So Project HEAL’s staff got to work and bought him a one-way ticket to Asheville.

“At that point, I had been training in or practicing medicine for over a decade. Not once had a patient openly identified themself as being in a gang — much less given me critical information to prevent a shooting and save a life. He proactively picked up the phone and gave our violence prevention program this information. In the days that followed, it became clear to me why this work is so essential,” Dr. Shah explained.

The Department of Justice provided Project HEAL with $2 million to continue this type of work, and the rest of the program’s new funding came from the New Jersey Attorney General’s office.

Hackensack Meridian Health will use the funds to provide more aid, as well as build stronger connections with local school districts and faith-based organizations. Through these partnerships, the health system will deploy peer specialists who have been affected by violence themselves. These specialists will mentor young adults who have recently been victimized in an effort to help them avoid the cyclical nature of violence, Dr. Shah said.

In urban settings, it’s estimated that 41% of victims of violence are re-injured within a five year period, and one in five will die in that five year period, he pointed out.

Dr. Shah, along with many physicians like him who have spent years working in emergency departments, is a strong believer in treating violence as a public health issue. More health systems should get serious about violence prevention programs, he said.

“This grant funding is excellent. But would we ever ask our doctors, nurses and care teams to treat the victims of heart attacks and strokes with grant dollars alone? Of course not. And so if violence is a public health issue, why would we ask our doctors, nurses and teams to do that? I think that’s the kind of question that hospital and health system leaders should pose in addition to doing the work,” he declared.

As it stands now, gun violence prevention efforts are more of an afterthought than an integral part of hospital budget planning. But guns are a massive cause of injuries and fatalities in the U.S. — gun violence recently became the number one killer of children in the country. Dr. Shah is asking hospitals to place more importance on efforts stop these cycles of violence and death.

Photo: Aitor Diago, Getty Images