For many people in Washington, DC, breathing does not come easy. In fact, more DC residents report being diagnosed with asthma than U.S. residents overall, according to the city’s Department of Health. Asthma rates in the DC are especially high in Wards 7 and 8, which are home to some of the District’s poorest residents.
These facts did not sit well with McCourt School of Public Policy students Lina Stolyar (MPP ‘20) and Emilia Calma (MPP ‘20) who wanted to figure out a solution to help ease the burden of this chronic disease among District residents, especially among kids. “We did not think that we could change the rates of chronic asthma in DC,” Calma says. “We wanted to find a way to deliver preventative long-term care that could reduce the number of acute attacks that often force children to go to the emergency room.”
After a lot of research, the pair discovered an asthma clinic run by Children’s National Health Center in DC, known as IMPACT DC. When they spoke with the Center, they learned that only 50 percent of the people who get referred show up to the clinic to get long-term care plans. Stolyar and Calma wanted to know why.
After more research, the pair discovered that for many DC residents it can be hard to take time off work to visit the IMPACT DC, which is also located in an area of the city that is difficult to get to from Wards 7 and 8. Calma and Stolyar developed a solution called Breathe Easy. Breathe Easy equips community health workers to facilitate home visits, identify environmental triggers that can exacerbate asthma symptoms, and provide families with resources and long-term managed care plans.
“Emilia and Lina’s Breathe Easy project is one of the most impressive and comprehensive programs I have seen to address childhood asthma morbidity in the District of Columbia,” says Ankoor Shah, Impact DC’s medical director, who is currently working to integrate Breathe Easy into the clinic’s model of care. “By utilizing community health workers, this program delivers family-centered and placed-based care and addresses the housing social determinant of health.”
An Award-Winning Approach
To develop their project, Calma and Stolyar used a human-centered design approach starting with the population they wanted to serve and researching its specific needs and constraints in order to tailor a solution, as opposed to molding a solution to the population.
Their approach has been impactful and it has earned them first place in the 2019 Georgetown Public Policy Challenge. The Public Policy Challenge provides students an opportunity to develop a policy proposal and civic campaign plan aimed at achieving significant change in their communities. Modeled after MBA business plan competitions, the challenge is sponsored by The McCourt School of Public Policy and the Baker Trust for Transformational Learning.
Winning the competition “really reinforced the idea of making sure you know your population so that the policy proposed can best serve them,” says Stolyar, who, along with Calma, plans to continue working to develop policies in the area of health equity after graduating in May.
Both say that the experience of developing Breathe Easy also helped them realize that a policy does not have to be implemented on a large scale to be effective. “Our policy is simple and implementable—done at a community level—and can have a big impact,” Stolyar says.