Health Leads

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Health Leads
FounderRebecca Onie
Barry Zuckerman
Key people
Alexandra (Alex) Quinn,
Chief Executive Officer
Damon Francis MD,
Chief Clinical Officer

Health Leads is a national healthcare organization that connects low-income patients with the basic resources they need to be healthy.[1] Health Leads intends for healthcare providers to routinely take into account the social and economic reasons people get sick.[2]

Health Leads facilitates the treatment of underlying social and environmental causes of patients' health problems by working with doctors in participating clinics on "prescriptions" for things such as food, fuel assistance, housing or other resources for their patients the same way they might prescribe medication. Patients then work with an onsite trained volunteer to access public benefits and community resources to fulfill these "prescriptions."

Currently, Health Leads operates at 20 desks with 15 clinical partners in six U.S. cities (Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New York, Providence, and Washington, D.C.).[3]


In 1996, Harvard College sophomore Rebecca Onie co-founded Health Leads (called Project HEALTH until November 2010)[4] with Dr. Barry Zuckerman, Chief of Pediatrics at Boston Medical Center.[5] Onie reached out to Zuckerman while serving as an intern at Greater Boston Legal Services, where she was struck by the link between poverty and poor health.[6]

During her internship, Onie interviewed mothers of children who had asthma and lung infections, which were triggered by their housing conditions.[3] Onie found that close to 70 percent of the patients at Boston Medical Center are considered poor and the children who were treated at the clinic would later be readmitted to the hospital because nothing was done to address the causes of their illnesses.[3]

Onie served as Executive Director for Health Leads while she completed her undergraduate education,[7] she then attended Harvard Law School and later worked as an associate at Miner, Barnhill & Galland P.C. in Chicago, where her clients included civil health centers, affordable housing developers, and non-profit organizations. During that time, Onie served as founding Co-Chair of Health Leads’ Board of Directors, she returned to Health Leads as CEO in February 2006.[8]

Between 2012 and 2014, over 1,000 hospitals requested the Health Leads program.[9]


Health Leads is currently supported by both foundations and individual donors.[10]

In March 2011, The Skoll Foundation awarded Health Leads a $1.2 million, three-year grant in connection with its social entrepreneurship award to Rebecca Onie.[11]

In June 2011, Health Leads completed a capital campaign to raise $11.1 million for a four-year strategic growth plan.[12]

In 2014, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation gave Health Leads a $16 million grant to focus on scaling impact.[9]

Other donors include New Profit,[13] a venture philanthropy fund, and The Physicians Foundation.[14]

Business Model[edit]

Health Leads facilities are operated chiefly by physicians and college volunteers who work together to match incoming patients with available resources. Health Leads’ stated mission is to “connect low-income patients with the basic resources — such as food, housing, and heating assistance — that they need to be healthy.”[15]

During a medical appointment at a Health Leads partnered clinic, a physician can refer a patient to a Health Leads desk by writing a “prescription” for resources just as he/she would for medication.

The patient is sent to a Health Leads desk in clinic waiting rooms where trained college volunteers “fill” the prescription.[16] Patient casework is documented by Advocates using Health Leads REACH, an online resource and case note database. Stations are typically housed within pediatric outpatient, adolescent and prenatal clinics, newborn nurseries, pediatric emergency rooms, health department clinics and federally qualified health centers.[17]

Importance of volunteers[edit]

Student Advocates are a key part of the model, which involves mobilizing “undergraduate volunteers, in partnership with providers in urban clinics, to connect low-income patients with the basic resources — such as food, housing, and heating assistance — that they need to be healthy.”[15] Health Leads also sees them as potential future healthcare leaders who will understand the importance of addressing the connection between poverty and poor health.[18]

The volunteers go through intensive training[19] and dedicate a minimum of eight hours a week.[20] Health Leads currently works with and accepts applications for new college volunteers each semester from the following schools: Boston University, Harvard University, University of Massachusetts Boston, Brown University, City College of New York, Columbia University, Hofstra University, New York University, Johns Hopkins University, Loyola University Maryland, University of Maryland Baltimore County, University of Maryland College Park, George Washington University, the University of Chicago, and Case Western Reserve University.[20]

In 2014, Health Leads anticipates training roughly 1,000 college volunteers, helping over 14,000 low-income patients.[9]

A reported 83 percent of graduating Health Leads volunteers in 2010 entered jobs or advanced study in the fields of health and poverty.[11]

Plans for growth[edit]

Health Leads’ strategic plan for 2011 to 2014 calls for growing significantly beyond its current partner hospitals and clinics.[21] In addition to scaling up its current model, the organization is also working on building a strong business case[22] for why the healthcare system should pay for the service.[12]

Evaluations and media coverage[edit]


Nearly 60 percent of patients referred to Health Leads had at least one critical need met within 90 days of their first appointment.[17]


In an April 2013 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Health Leads was provided as an example of an “outside the box” multidisciplinary primary care intervention, along with programs like Reach Out and Read and the Medical-Legal Partnership; the article made recommendations for successful approaches to addressing social determinants of health.[23]

In April 2013, the Academic Pediatric Association’s Task Force on Childhood Poverty, formed to address the effect of childhood poverty on health, released a brief highlighting specific programs, including Health Leads, as “evidence-based primary care programs that help children in poor families.”[24]

In March 2013, Rebecca Onie appeared for the second time on the MSNBC program Melissa Harris-Perry Show to discuss the Affordable Care Act and the challenges of implementation as coverage is set to extend to roughly 30 million more Americans in 2014.[25]

The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship named Onie one of twenty-four international Social Entrepreneurs of the Year 2013; the award recognizes leadership and innovation, as well as potential for global impact.[26]

The Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School named Rebecca Onie as the 2012 recipient of the Gleitsman Citizen Activist Award, bestowed biennially to leaders “who have struggled to correct social injustice in the United States.”[27]

In December 2012, Health Leads was named to the S&I 100, an index launched by the Social Impact Exchange highlighting America’s top-performing non-profit organizations.[28]

In October 2012, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation selected Rebecca Onie as one of ten recipients, 40 years of age and younger, of the Young Leader Award: Recognizing Leadership for a Healthier America.[29]

In September 2012, Rebecca Onie appeared on the top-rated MSNBC program Melissa Harris-Perry Show to discuss the Affordable Care Act and the challenge of more patients becoming insured while fewer medical students pursue primary care.[30]

In 2012, Rebecca Onie co-authored "Realigning Health with Care: Lessons in Delivering More with Less", highlighting the need for America to expand its scope of healthcare; the article appeared in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.[31]

In April 2012, Rebecca Onie delivered a TEDMED talk, "Can We Rewrite the DNA of the Healthcare System?" where she asked, "If we know what we need to do to have a healthcare system, rather than a sickcare system - why don't we do it?"[32]

In December 2011, Harris Interactive, on behalf of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that nine in ten physicians serving patients in low-income communities believe patients' social needs are as important to address as their medical conditions and offered Health Leads as a promising model for bridging the gap.[33]

On July 28, 2011, The New York Times ran a commentary about Health Leads, written by David Bornstein (author), which referred to Health Leads as "one of the most impressive organizations in the country" at addressing the conditions that make people sick.[34]

The Skoll Foundation awarded Rebecca Onie one of its four 2011 Skoll Awards for Entrepreneurship for Health Leads’ role in “scalable, proven solutions” to the “toughest of problems.”[11] The awards go to social entrepreneurs “around the world in the areas of tolerance and human rights, health, environmental sustainability, peace and security and economic and social equity.”[11]

Onie was named to Oprah Winfrey's 2010 O Power List of women who are “changing the world for the better.”[35] According to O: The Oprah Magazine, Onie and Health Leads “blew us away” by understanding “the power of the big picture.”[36]

In 2009, Onie received a MacArthur Fellows Program from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for her work with Health Leads.[37] Onie, one of 24 recipients of the award, was honored for Health Leads’ work “providing health care professionals with effective tools for alleviating the socioeconomic barriers that limit access to health care for low-income families, thereby expanding the scope of what health care truly entails.”[38]

At the 2009 Time (magazine) 100 Most Influential People Gala, First Lady Michelle Obama called Project HEALTH (now Health Leads) “exactly the kind of social innovation and entrepreneurship we should be encouraging all across this country.”[39]


  1. ^ "Physician "Prescriptions" Written During Medical Visit and "Filled" by Onsite Volunteers Connect Low-Income Families to Vital Community Resources". AHRQ Health Care.
  2. ^ "Rebecca Onie, 2009 MacArthur Fellow". YouTube.
  3. ^ a b c Bornstein, David (July 28, 2011). "Treating the Cause, Not the Illness". New York Times.
  4. ^ "Health Leads: A New Name, But An Unchanged Mission To Care For Low-Income Families". WBUR - Boston NPR.
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  6. ^ "Treating Root Causes". Boston Globe. Archived from the original on August 10, 2011.
  7. ^ "Kennedy honors two". Harvard Gazette.
  8. ^ "Rebecca Onie Co-Founder & Chief Executive Officer". Health Leads. Archived from the original on 2011-08-14.
  9. ^ a b c "Health Leads expands movement to place social needs at the center of preventive care". TEDMED. 9 June 2014. Retrieved 29 September 2014.
  10. ^ "Our Supporters". Health Leads.
  11. ^ a b c d "Skoll Foundation Announces 2011 Skoll Awards for Social Entrepreneurship: Four Winners Focus on Health, Water, and Education". Skoll Foundation.
  12. ^ a b "Health Leads Successfully Closes $11.1 Million Capital Campaign". Health Leads Summer 2011 e-newsletter.
  13. ^ "About Health Leads (formerly Project HEALTH)". New Profit Inc.
  14. ^ "Grantmaking". The Physicians Foundation.
  15. ^ a b "What We Do". Health Leads.
  16. ^ "Connecting families and resources". Johns Hopkins Gazette.
  17. ^ a b "An Innovative Prescription for Better Health". Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
  18. ^ "Health Leads". Opportunity Nation.
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  20. ^ a b "Volunteer". Health Leads.
  21. ^ "Our Partners". Health Leads.
  22. ^ Giridharadas, Anand (July 15, 2011). "Real Change Requires Politics". New York Times.
  23. ^ "Addressing the Social Determinants of Health Within the Patient-Centered Medical Home". Journal of the American Medical Association.
  24. ^ "APA Task Force on Childhood Poverty" (PDF). Academic Pediatric Association.
  25. ^ "Obamacare: Now Comes the Hard Part". MSNBC.
  26. ^ "Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship Announces Social Entrepreneurs of the Year 2013". Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship. Archived from the original on 2014-04-15.
  27. ^ "Rebecca Onie Wins 2012 Gleitsman Citizen Activist Award". Harvard Kennedy School: Center for Public Leadership.
  28. ^ "An Index of Top Non-Profits Creating Social Impact". Social Impact Exchange.
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  32. ^ "Can We Rewrite the DNA of the Healthcare System?". TEDMED.
  33. ^ "Health Care's Blind Side". Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
  34. ^ Bornstein, David (July 28, 2011). "Treating the cause, not the illness". New York Times.
  35. ^ "The 2010 O Power List". Oprah.
  36. ^ "The 2010 O Power List". Oprah.
  37. ^ "24 New MacArthur Fellows Announced". MacArthur Foundation.
  38. ^ "Rebecca Onie". MacArthur Foundation.
  39. ^ Strzemien, Anya (May 6, 2009). "Michelle Obama At TIME 100". Huffington Post.