Ellen Olshansky, Professor and Director Program in Nursing Science UC Irvine photo: Steve Zylius/UC Irvine Communications

The bridge builder

Since joining UC Irvine in 2007 to launch the nursing science program, Ellen Olshansky has flourished as a highly respected county leader for community-based research and women’s health policy. And much of it started at her kitchen table five years ago.

There, in her University Hills home, Olshansky brought together Susan Bryant and Karol Gottfredson of UCI and Allyson Sonenshine and Stephanie Kight of Planned Parenthood of Orange & San Bernardino Counties to share ideas about what they could do to champion women’s health issues. Brainstorming over white wine, cheese and crackers, they outlined what would become the Orange County Women’s Health Project.

With aggressive planning and outreach by these five women, the OCWHP kicked off in 2011. In May 2012, it hosted the inaugural Orange County Women’s Health Policy Summit, at which a UCI alumna presented “A Snapshot of Women’s Health in Orange County” – the first-ever such survey.

The project’s partners have since formed task forces for breast and cervical cancer, teen reproductive health, and health and domestic violence. The work is paying dividends: Earlier this year, Blue Shield awarded the OCWHP $2 million to establish a countywide, integrated and collaborative system that will strengthen healthcare response to domestic violence and streamline service.

“Ellen was instrumental in getting the project off the ground – introducing the vision and doing the outreach and creating momentum,” says Sonenshine, OCWHP director. “We’ve developed a wonderful model that’s focused on data analysis, policy and education, and we play an increasingly important role.”

Now Olshansky is applying her bridge-building talents at UCI’s Institute for Clinical & Translational Science.

Supported by a prestigious Clinical & Translational Science Award from the National Institutes of Health, the ICTS is dedicated to advancing efforts to turn scientific discoveries into new methods, treatments and cures to improve public health. One of its most important objectives is community engagement, and that’s where Olshansky comes in.

“My goal is to build partnerships with community-based groups,” she says. “I want to ask ‘How can we work together?’ It’s the difference between doing research ‘with’ and doing research ‘on.’”

ICTS director Dr. Dan Cooper says Olshansky is the perfect person at the perfect time to lead the community engagement push.

“Ellen has a long history of collaborating with the community, and her work is based upon having real dialogue and understanding among groups that don’t always speak the same language,” Cooper says. “She has remarkable skills in translating and expressing to faculty the community needs that impact health directly. Being a facilitator between these two groups is invaluable to us.”

To boost outreach, the ICTS is a founding partner of the Orange County Alliance for Community Health Research, which consists of the leaders of local, community-based organizations; practicing physicians; healthcare agencies; governmental representatives; community groups; and UCI researchers.

The alliance’s purpose is to create an infrastructure in Orange County that increases the ability of community organizations and universities to engage in health research that’s designed by the community to meet the needs of the community. Olshansky serves on its advisory board.

“At the heart of the alliance is the belief that the community first expresses its health needs, and then university researchers work with these partners to find solutions,” she says. “That’s what community-based research is all about, and I’ll be working diligently to further establish those relationships in Orange County.”

Earlier this year, Olshansky stepped aside from directing UCI’s Program in Nursing Science, where over seven years she oversaw the initiation of the bachelor’s program and the approval and initiation of the master’s and doctoral programs. She also spearheaded the effort to include nurse practitioner concentrations in the master’s program.

And during a recent sabbatical, Olshansky put the finishing touches on her latest book, Women’s Health & Wellness Across the Lifespan. Set for release on Dec. 11, it offers a historical and comprehensive look at women’s health – politically, socially, legally and medically – through contributions from leading experts across the country.

“This book is important because it explains the reasons why it’s necessary to have a focus on the issue of women’s health,” Olshansky says. “There has been such political push-back on sexual and reproductive health services, and we need to be sure that we continue to provide and strengthen these services.

“But many people believe that’s all women’s health is about. In fact, it’s much more than that, and this book goes in depth into the many other important issues women face. It’s written mostly for primary care physicians and nurse practitioners, but I believe anyone interested in women’s health will benefit from reading it.”

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