‘Great care can’t wait:’ Oak Street Health opens new Akron location serving older adults on Medicare

Reporting, writing and photos by H.L. Comeriato

Oak Street Health is humming with excitement. After months of preparation, Jan. 20 is opening day.

In the lobby, staff huddle at the front desk for a group photo. Dr. Laola Fayanju, Oak Street’s senior medical director, takes his place in the back row. His colleagues crouch and smile for the camera, a cluster of blue surgical masks glowing bright in the flash.

Oak Street Health is a network of primary care centers that serves older adults who qualify for Medicare. Since 2012, Oak Street has opened more than 75 locations across the country. But since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Emily Hershey, the center’s outreach executive, says older adults have been nearly impossible to reach. 

Retreating into their homes with limited contact with friends or family, Hershey says older adults are vulnerable to the virus in more ways than one. Isolation can be dangerous for older adults, who risk accidental falls and compounded mental health issues on top of their vulnerability to the virus itself.

That’s why Oak Street Health provides holistic care, she says — a model that ensures older adults, often managing multiple chronic conditions like diabetes or COPD, are able to access exactly the kind of care they need, especially during the pandemic.

“Oftentimes, we’re working with patients who may not be high on the radar of most other primary care processes, because some will say, “Oh, it’s too hard taking care of somebody with this many problems.’ People sometimes start labeling [patients] by their comorbidities,” Fayanju says. “But these are people. These are parents and siblings and aunts and uncles.

“I think we want to make sure that no one is denied great care,” Fayanju adds. “And we all just operate under the understanding that great care can’t wait.”

That’s why Hershey says getting Oak Street’s first appointment on the books was a victory in itself. 

For the last few months, Hershey has been pounding the pavement. Just before Christmas, she followed a line of cars down Dart Avenue and West Bartges Street, a fistful of Oak Street lanyards swinging at her knees.

After struggling to connect with older adults during the pandemic, Hershey and her team decided to reach out to people waiting for the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank’s grocery distribution to begin. For hours, they walked back and forth between idling cars — knocking on windows, handing out flyers and talking to older folks about Oak Street Health’s new Firestone Park location.

It’s this kind of street-level outreach that has kept Hershey on her toes since the onset of the pandemic — committed to talking to as many older adults as possible before Oak Street officially opened its doors on Jan. 20.

“I don’t think anybody has been unaffected by COVID, whether you’ve been infected or been affected by seeing so much suffering, so much loss,” Fayanju says. “As a health care provider and as a physician, it’s been tough. I won’t lie. I won’t say it hasn’t been tough watching colleagues go through this. The stress of watching people suffer and die from this disease is horrifying, but I am reassured by what we’ve been able to do.”

Before the pandemic, Oak Street’s model was entirely center-based. But in the midst of COVID-19, Fayanju says older adults need more support than ever before when it comes to accessing health care in new and creative ways.

So Oak Street designed a model that allows patients to access a telehealth portal on their own devices. If a patient can’t come to the center in person but doesn’t have access to a smartphone or laptop, Oak Street drops a Wifi-equipped tablet at their doorstep.

“Our objective in delivering this kind of care is to help our patients live happy and healthier lives in their communities,” Fayanju says. “And to show them that chronic conditions that they may have, while they need to be managed, don’t need to dominate their lives.”

The center also offers transportation to and from appointments at Oak Street Health’s new location at the Arlington Road Plaza and within local hospital systems.

Since 2018, Oak Street has opened 10 locations across the state. Fayanju, who serves as the medical lead for Oak Street’s centers in Cleveland, Youngstown, Akron, Dayton and Cincinnati, says part of the organization’s mission is to impact as many patients in as many communities as possible.

“It is a privilege to take care of people,” Fayanju says. “Being a doctor is a privilege, and I take it seriously, and I hope people see just how much this work means to us.

“If we can show that we can provide great care to older adults,” he adds, “we can show that this works. This is the formula I think can really change and truly rebuild health care.”

H.L. Comeriato covers public health at The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach them at HL@thedevilstrip.com.