IU Is Everywhere

From Bloomington to Bangkok, meet members of the IU family who are acting as ambassadors for the university.

Debra Litzelman, Kenya

IU School of Medicine's Debra Litzelman has been working with patients in Kenya as a part of IU's AMPATH program for nearly two decades and is using her experiences to improve health care in Indiana.

Dr. Debra Litzelman's work with the Indiana University Center for Global Health and the university's celebrated AMPATH program in Kenya -- focused on improving the health and well-being of the medically underserved across the globe -- has taken her from Africa to Indiana and back again.

And in both places, she practices the concept of "reciprocal innovation," a term of art she's adopted to illustrate the idea that researchers and providers can learn from each other no matter the geographical location or cultural community.

"Through the real, bi-directional nature of what we can do together as a world community of investigators and providers, what we learn in one environment can be taken to another and thoughtfully shared, adapted and molded into something that can potentially be helpful in moving whatever issue forward," she said.

Debra Litzelman with a mother and child in KenyaView print quality image
IU School of Medicine faculty member Debra Litzelman poses with a mother and child in Kenya. Photo courtesy of the IU School of Medicine

"I've learned a tremendous amount from my Kenyan colleagues, and work that's been done in one of the most resource-poor areas of the world has been brought back to Indiana," she said. "And work we've done here in Indiana, I take back with me to Kenya. There's this true reciprocity and exchange that I think is so exciting, and it makes all of us better for having worked together."

Litzelman, the D. Craig Brater Professor of Global Health Education at the IU School of Medicine, has pulled the thread of reciprocal innovation through a federally funded project to create an innovative screening, hiring and training process for people working with older patients with cognitive and mood disorders. She's pulled it through her work in Kenya, where she helped train community health workers.

And she's continuing to pull it through her most recent work leading WeCare Indiana, a grant-funded project aimed at training community health workers to connect new mothers and mothers-to-be with local health resources aimed at reducing infant mortality risk factors. Close to 1,300 patients are enrolled in that program now.

Through that work, Litzelman said, she and her fellow investigators have discovered that about 15 percent of the women participating are screening positive for substance abuse, including for opioids, methamphetamine and alcohol.

When we go into a community as academic researchers, it's not about us figuring out what the community needs; the community will tell you.

Debra Litzelman

That prompted her application as one of the 16 pilot projects that represent the first phase of IU's Responding to the Addictions Crisis Grand Challenges initiative, part of the university's $50 million commitment to prevent, reduce and treat addictions in Indiana. That project, "A Community-Based Addiction Reduction Plus Policy Innovations Program for Indiana," is intended to support the WeCare Indiana program to enable opiate-addicted mothers and fathers to engage in substance abuse and mental health treatment through the workforce development of community health workers.

But in each place she works, Litzelman said, it's important to remember that it's about working together to tackle pressing health issues.

"It's tied into reciprocity and mutual respect and taking a deep dive into what it means to be research literate, not just in one direction but bi-directionally," she said. "When we go into a community as academic researchers, it's not about us figuring out what the community needs; the community will tell you. And we can't do our work without each other, working meaningfully in open-mindedness and respect."

WeCare Indiana is also supported by the Indiana State Department of Health, the Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute, IU Health and the Regenstrief Institute.