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A First-of-its-kind Academic Social Entrepreneurship Lab

The Eidos LGBT+ Health Initiative, anchored in the School of Nursing, is part of a $750 million University investment in science, engineering, and medicine.

Nursing values holistic, lifespan approaches to health. Now, a new and unique initiative called the Eidos LGBT+ Health Initiative anchored at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing expands this frame to address the needs of LGBT+ communities. It’s supported by Dean Antonia M. Villarruel and led by researcher José Bauermeister.

“We want to think about health not just in a physical sense but in the social and emotional sense, too,” says Bauermeister, the Albert M. Greenfield Professor of Human Relations and chair of Penn Nursing’s Department of Family & Community Health.

“The unequal treatment of sexual and gender minority communities may strain or sever loving ties between families and friends, limit educational and employment opportunities, impede personal growth and wellness, place people in harm’s way, and hinder trust in health and social services,” he says. “Our hope is that Eidos can create evidence-based health solutions that are available to LGBT+ people when they need it most and that address the vulnerabilities they face at different moments in the life course.”

Specifically, the Eidos LGBT+ Health Initiative—a first-of-its-kind academic social entrepreneurship lab—has four goals: to propose innovative research that considers factors associated with health among LGBT+ populations, to create a space that brings together different voices and perspectives, to train students to think about creative solutions to improve LGBT+ health, and to catalyze evidence-based strategies and programs focused on health issues for this group.

Around 11 million people in the United States identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Bauermeister sees an opportunity for greater equity in the care they receive.

“What we have found and continue to find in different areas of scholarship,” he says, “is that LGBT+ people experience greater structural disadvantages than cisgender heterosexual peers, yet efforts to address these outcomes through risk reduction and resilience approaches are often narrowly focused on single health outcomes rather than a more integrative, humanistic approach.”

Officially launching in January, the Eidos LGBT+ Health Initiative is part of a $750 million investment by the University announced in November by President Amy Gutmann. That funding is centered around energy and sustainability, data engineering and science, infrastructure to support physical science research, and novel therapeutics and health-related initiatives.

“Penn is one of the most innovative institutions in the world, leading the way in medicine and science to ensure a better future for all,” says Gutmann. “We are building on such progress through this game-changing new initiative, which will promote pioneering research and programs that, at their core, address health issues in the LGBT community, a group underserved for far too long. I have the utmost pride in the team at Penn Nursing to lead this tremendously important effort.”

Initial ventures

The word eidos means “form” in ancient Greek, a notion Plato and Socrates developed to understand how the essence of an idea is given meaningful shape in society. Bauermeister says that for the initial projects of the Eidos LGBT+ Health Initiative he’s drawing on inspiration from that notion, centering the work in community-focused collaborations.

One of the first efforts will include an expansion of a quality-improvement program that Penn Nursing researchers developed in conjunction with youth and community health workers. This program uses a health equity tool the team created to assess the LGBT+ health competency of community-based agencies. Young people get trained in the methodology, then evaluate how providers interact with sexual and gender minority clients, including their comfort and understanding of the needs of LGBT+ people.

“We can then use data from the tool to identify areas where providers may receive training and support,” Bauermeister says. “We’re hoping to launch a train-the-trainer model to make this usable for community groups across the country interested in improving their delivery of services in a culturally competent way.” It’s already been implemented in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Houston, and the Detroit metro area, and Bauermeister hopes to broaden its reach.

Another early effort will focus on launching an app-based life skills program for LGBT+ youth to support them no matter where they live. In creating this digital community, Bauermeister stresses that “life skills” here go beyond the behavioral health focus of similar programs, to include areas like education and career aspirations, housing, relationships with family and friends, and spirituality and faith.

“We think deeply about the resources LGBT+ young people will need and design informational and interactive strategies to set them up for success,” Bauermeister says. As part of this initiative, for example, if someone using the app wants to practice a conversation or needs support, Penn students are trained as peer mentors to facilitate these exchanges.

Student involvement

Students are a critical part of all of this work, says Villarruel, the Professor and Margaret Bond Simon Dean of Nursing and a senior fellow at Penn’s Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics. “They have the creative energy and drive and enthusiasm to not only participate but to lead components of this initiative. Anyone concerned with LGBT health is welcome to promote and advance solutions.”

Undergraduate and graduate students can receive mentored training and work opportunities across the different projects, and may also have the chance to lead their own. For example, Bauermeister sees great potential in an idea from Penn Nursing doctoral student Kierra Foley. She created an app to reduce social isolation in sexual and gender minority elders, which earned her the Rita and Alex Hillman Foundation Award for Innovation.

“We think social isolation among aging LGBT people in Philadelphia is a place we can make an impact,” Bauermeister says. “The idea is to bring communities together and have people feel seen and heard through digital technologies, particularly given that the pandemic decreased the amount of in-person social activities LGBT elders are able to do.”

The three projects this year, plus the many others that will come during the next five years, build on the social innovations track record of Penn and Penn Nursing. “We have a strong base of evidence on effective approaches to advance the health of sexual and gender minorities,” Villarruel says. “Coupled with our social justice mission, we have many ingredients necessary to maximize our impact.”

This article originally appeared in Penn Today. It was written by Michele Berger, senior science news officer in University Communications.