Partner Profile: A Conversation with Dr. Danielle Cullen, MD, MPH, MSHP

October 27, 2022 | Abeselom Gebreyesus, MPH(c), BA

The Health Care Improvement Foundation’s (HCIF) Partner Profiles highlight the efforts of valued and innovative health leaders. Our partners’ work supports HCIF’s vision of healthier communities through equitable, accessible, and quality health care.

 

 

As HCIF continues to tackle trauma-informed care and food insecurity as part of its COACH programming, we are pleased to feature Danielle Cullen MD, MPH, MSHP, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Emergency Medicine at CHOP. Danielle serves as Co-Chair of the COACH Food Insecurity Workgroup that consists of medical and health professionals who have come together to address social determinants of health and food access in Pennsylvania.

 

 

 

 

You serve on the COACH Food Insecurity Workgroup while also conducting research on childhood food insecurity and community-based interventions to improve health equity among children and their families. How did you become interested in pediatrics and working with socially disadvantaged children?

I’ve always been drawn to working with children and their families, whether it was as a swim instructor through high school and college, tutoring, or now as a physician and public health professional. When kids and their families enter the medical setting, they bring with them more than their acute presenting complaint; they bring their stories, their experiences, and the relationships that impact who they are and how they engage with care. I believe that being a pediatrician means more than treating patients medically; we also have the responsibility of providing a voice for children. Through my work, I see pediatric emergency medicine as a platform to combine clinical practice with research in a way that enables me to advocate effectively for the health of children and their families.

In addition to your work with COACH, you have also been involved with tackling childhood food insecurity at CHOP through programs like the Healthier Together initiative and the Complete Eats program. What is one thing you think people should know about childhood food insecurity?

That it is common and underrecognized. That there’s no specific way that a food insecure family should “look.” And that it’s generally the tip of the iceberg—if a family is experiencing food insecurity, there are likely many other areas in life that are stressful. Most importantly, I want people to know that even if a family is experiencing food insecurity, we must prioritize the family’s autonomy to decide what they want assistance with, when, and from whom. If we ask the questions—and if the family wants assistance— we must be ready to help. I suppose this is more than just one thing…

What are your greatest accomplishments within your field so far?

My greatest accomplishment is my team. I am fortunate to work with a phenomenal group of community partners, social workers, health professionals, academic researchers, and students. It is tremendously invigorating to work with such dedicated and caring humans who are striving to make life a little easier—and hopefully better—for the patients and families that we serve.

“There’s no specific way that a food insecure family should ‘look’.”

-Dr. Cullen

Tell us about the Complete Eats program.

The Complete Eats program is CHOP’s partnership with the USDA, PA Department of Education, and the Nutritional Development Services of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to serve kids free balanced meals at the point of clinical care and connect families with food and other social resources that exist within their community. It is an extension of the summer food service program, a mirror program of the National School breakfast and lunch programs, operating during school closures. With the tremendous work on our clinical and community partners, this program has been in operation at CHOP for the past six years, providing meals at five different clinical settings. Most impressively, with the dedication of our team, we were able to operate nearly-continuously for 18 months during the COVID-19 pandemic, serving over 101,100 meals to kids, and demonstrating impact of the program in terms of improvement in family-level food security.

If you could motivate people in your field to tackle one issue or address one challenge, what would it be?

Oh, good question. I have a few different “fields” so I’m tempted to cheat on this one and give multiple answers. At the root, it really comes down to pushing further and further upstream, working together to dismantle systemic inequity, racism, and systems of poverty. In this we need to elevate and amplify the experiences and preferences of our patients/families, and the strength in our communities, to promote desired, effective change.

What have you found most valuable about working with the COACH collaborative?

I love the opportunity for clinical and community partners to come together, share lessons learned, and work towards improvement across our fields. As an implementation scientist, I also feel that this group has the potential to serve as a model to decrease the “know-do” gap, allowing for shared learning, dissemination of best practices, and scaling of effective innovations across institutions on a timeline that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.

What’s a quote that inspires you in your work?

Sitting on my desk right now, and every day, is a framed quotable card that continues to resonate. It says, “This is your world. Shape it or someone else will.”


 

Something you may not know about Dr. Cullen is that her grandfather invented car signals! Not only is she very proud that her grandfather was such a tremendous innovator, but also appreciates that an emphasis on safety and clear communication has a strong lineage in her family.

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