Bexar County Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome Collaborative responds to the effect the opioid crisis is having on mothers and their babies. Credit: Scott Sherrill-Mix / Flickr

Many Americans agree that our country’s healthcare system needs improvement. A lot of improvement.

One of the most powerful but often overlooked strategies at our disposal is collaboration – the kind that involves not only academics and healthcare professionals, but also communities where real people need help that our standard system of care does not adequately provide.

Case in point: After securing a $40,000 grant in the spring of 2016, my colleagues at UT Health San Antonio School of Nursing and I, along with community stakeholders, formed the Bexar County Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome Collaborative (BCNC), a community-based response to the effect the opioid crisis is having on mothers and their babies.

Through collaborative education, research, and clinical practice, this grassroots-driven program supports individuals and families impacted by neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), which occurs when pregnant women use opioids in the form of prescription painkillers or heroin. Babies exposed to opioids in the womb often experience withdrawal, with symptoms including excessive crying, trouble feeding, diarrhea, and shakiness. Bexar County’s NAS rates are the highest in Texas.

Sadly, women sometimes delay getting prenatal care and treatment for their addiction out of fear of being called bad mothers or their children being taken away from them.

But the BCNC is making a dent in the problem. To date, the collaborative has served more than 200 women and their families through projects focused on mother-infant, skin-to-skin holding and breastfeeding to reduce symptoms of NAS.

Also, following a needs assessment conducted with the BCNC, where a critical need for recovery housing for women and children in Bexar County was identified, the collaborative began working toward the establishment of Casa Mia. This project is the result of a partnership between BCNC and Crosspoint, a nonprofit that has been providing recovery services in San Antonio since 1963, and will begin welcoming families this fall.

It all happened thanks to research, supported by the Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute, led by patients and focused on outcomes that matter most to them.

That’s right: Research led by patients, focused on what matters to real people in real communities like Bexar County.

That doesn’t sound like a broken health care system, does it? Amazing things can happen when we work together as a community to take on big problems in a spirit of love, empathy, and a firm belief in what we can accomplish together, collaboratively.

In fact, community-based, collaborative research is exactly how we need to tackle many health problems, not just the opioid crisis.

It is becoming more and more apparent that to help our patients improve their health, we must look beyond hospitals and help build healthy communities from the ground up. Maternal mortality, teen pregnancy, human trafficking, grandparents raising grandchildren – so many barriers prevent people from living healthy lives.

But programs like the BCNC, greatly informed by working hand-in-hand with the communities that suffer the most, are proof that the concept of community collaboration works.

Dr. Cindy Sickora, vice dean of practice and engagement at UT Health SA’s School for Nursing, is convinced that “we can make huge differences when we get out into the community, develop relationships, build trust, and then serve.”

That conviction led her to direct a program, titled “Re-Imagining Healthcare: A Life-Course Approach to Community Based Care,” that will be offered to the San Antonio community this November. Leading voices in the community-based care movement will share hands-on ways to connect with communities, guide families in finding community resources to help them flourish, and incorporate a grassroots focus into local health care.

Fixing the U.S. healthcare system is an enormous challenge. It’s a system that has left far too many of our community members behind. Throwing our hands into the air in exasperation and groaning about it won’t fix it. But joining our hands and locking our arms together – that’s a force that can overcome anything.

Just ask the moms and babies who have overcome opioid addiction.

Lisa Cleveland is an associate professor at the UT Health San Antonio School of Nursing. She is a practicing board certified pediatric nurse practitioner and an international board-certified lactation...