Dr. Michel Aboutanos, surgeon and medical director of Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center’s Level I trauma center, created a hospital-based violence prevention program when a 17-year-old boy died from a gunshot wound to the head after having spent months in the hospital due to being shot on two separate occasions that year. “I watched this kid die in our trauma bay. … I realized the function, the role of the trauma center is at the end of this vicious cycle of violence,” Aboutanos said. “We have to change the paradigm, change the role of the trauma center so that it can be part of the community’s answer.” Since then, the "Bridging the Gap" program has become a national model for how to help reduce gun violence rates and break the cycle of violence for patients in vulnerable communities, Virginia Mercury reports. It focuses on people ages 10 to 24 who are admitted to the trauma center for intentional injuries such as gunshot wounds, stab wounds, and assaults. Aboutanos said 17 years of research into the program shows 76% of its nearly 2,000 participants were less likely to be readmitted to the hospital for gun violence. Additionally, program participants have reduced their use of alcohol and drugs by more than half.
Due to its success, the program is poised to expand to five other hospitals through $5 million in state funding from Virginia’s Firearms Violence Intervention and Prevention Grant Program. Even though emergency department visits for firearm injuries in Virginia slightly decreased in 2022 after peaking in 2021, Virginia State Police reports show a 4.5% increase in the use of firearms in violent crimes during the same period. Aboutanos said the 4,300 trauma patients VCU sees annually from the Richmond area have been shot, stabbed, or involved in violence, and that figure continues to rise. While most hospitals typically have programs where social workers give trauma patients a list of resources to call themselves, VCU’s program sets them up with an interventionist at the hospital, who provides a litany of community resources catered to the specific patient’s needs. Resources include job training, transportation, mental health, and education help. "Our mission goes beyond providing medical care; it extends to fostering a culture of health, compassion, and resilience,” said VCU Health Chief Operating Officer Michael Elliot. “That’s what the programs are all about.”