Public health career has personal roots for Coiel Ricks-Stephen, MHL '21
Champion of underserved communities combines public health expertise with leadership skills honed at Brown.
As an undergraduate at Rutgers University, Coiel Ricks-Stephen, MHL ’21, didn’t envision herself as the public health leader she is today.
“I was on the track of becoming a chemical engineer,” she says.
That all changed during her sophomore year when, stirred by personal experiences, she heard the call of social science – and social justice.
“My grandfather had become sick from a tobacco-related illness,” she says, “and I began to look around at what was occurring in my community as it relates to public health. That’s what truly motivated me to go into the field. My first job out of college was in tobacco control.”
Now as the Director of Population Health at Trenton Health Team (THT) in New Jersey, Ricks-Stephen leads the organization’s programs, initiatives, and projects focused on improving the health and well-being of underserved and marginalized populations, while also improving access to quality care for city residents. The programs and services include chronic disease management, opioid harm reduction, cancer screening, COVID-19 vaccination and other infectious diseases.
Serving the underserved
Ricks-Stephen says growing up in an underserved area of Newark, New Jersey shaped who she is today. “I have been able to be successful in my public health career and I actually attribute it to my upbringing in Newark,” she says.
She cites her mother as her inspiration. “She was an administrator in education, and the value she put on education influenced me,” Ricks-Stephen says. “She enrolled me in pre-college programs and I gained exposure through the various programs she was involved in. I was able to see the needs and how she helped to serve those needs in her capacity.”
After her early-career work on tobacco control, Ricks-Stephen transitioned to addressing maternal death rates among inner city Black women, which were higher than rates in suburban areas. She then devoted her energies to HIV treatment, again with a focus on underserved populations. She notes that by her junior year in high school, she had lost ten family members to HIV-related illness. “So it spoke to me,” she says. “I was able to advocate and impact policy as it relates to HIV treatment and care.”
In her role at THT, Ricks-Stephen is tackling chronic health disparities such as diabetes. As part of the Merck Foundation’s “Bridging the Gap” initiative, THT’s Capital City Diabetes Collaborative seeks to promote improvement in diabetes care by addressing clinical and community barriers, at both individual and structural levels. “We focus on the social aspect, the environmental aspect and the healthcare access aspect,” she says. “And there are various initiatives within those domains that we have implemented to hopefully improve the health outcomes of individuals living with diabetes in Trenton, an area that has a higher rate of diabetes and poverty than both the state of New Jersey and federal averages.1” A case study detailing the community-based initiative was recently published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.
Ricks-Stephen says that with almost any health issue, the underserved community continues to be underserved, and that’s reflected in the health outcomes. In fact, an individual’s zip code may be more significant than their genetic code. “That five digit number dictates your health outcomes because it speaks to your socioeconomic status, your access to education and healthcare, and your access to fresh foods — all of the social determinants of health.”
Honing leadership skills at Brown
Almost a decade after earning her master’s degree in public health at Rutgers, Ricks-Stephen began searching for a program that would help her rise to higher-level leadership positions such as the one she now holds at THT. Brown’s Master of Science in Healthcare Leadership (MHL) stood out to her. “Because it was a hybrid program, I would have an opportunity to interact with my classmates in person,” she says. “And because it was Ivy League, I knew that the content would be top-notch, cutting edge and thought-provoking. It would get me to where I wanted to be as it relates to my career.”
Ricks-Stephen praises the program’s Critical Challenge Project for enabling her to apply what she was learning in class to real-life issues at work. And she cites Professor Robin Rose’s course, Leadership and Professional Development as being invaluable to her. “For so long, I battled with being an introvert,” she says. “Throughout my career, I would hear [people say] ‘We need to hear your voice more. You have so much to say.’ Robin’s course helped me come to terms with being an introvert and accepting who I am. I left with confidence in my leadership ability.”
Making connections across the healthcare field was one of the greatest benefits of the program, according to Rick-Stephens. “Leaving with a group of friends was one of my best takeaways,” she says. “We’re a very tight-knit cohort. There’s eighteen of us on a text group chat, and we check in weekly.”
The public health director is grateful for the interactions the MHL program made possible for her. “Here I am, a woman from inner city Newark, and I’m conversing with classmates whose experience is totally the opposite,” she says. “So I’m able to educate them about people within my community and give a real-life perspective on how social determinants impact health outcomes. To have that opportunity to educate a physician or chief medical officer is extremely rewarding.”
Preparing healthcare leaders of tomorrow.
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