CHHSM Members Impact Community Health

Getting screened for prostate cancer is simple enough, unless you’re homeless and without transportation.

That’s one of the lessons Mary Tell learned earlier this year as community health specialist at Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Mississippi, where she’s writing the script for a new role focused on prevention.

Tell found free screenings and persuaded several homeless clients of the need for the simple blood test – a hard sell itself – but they had no way to get to the clinic 12 miles away. So she found a closer clinic north of town, partnered with another organization to provide transportation for the shorter trip, and declared a minor victory.

“It was a learning experience,” Tell says. “Now we’re going to partner with a local clinic right here.”

CHHSM member ministries like Back Bay Mission are helping to lead the shift toward improved community health by making prevention the priority. Back Bay added Tell as its community health partner to its staff this summer to spread the word about getting and staying healthy.

CHHSM member Advocate Health Care is pursuing a similar goal as a key member of a regional partnership conducting a far-reaching assessment of the Chicago area’s needs as a first step to improving health.

“What really has an impact on health is addressing social conditions,” says the Rev. Bonnie Condon, vice president of community health and faith outreach for Advocate, the largest health system in Illinois. “We need to look at broader issues in the community.”

Advocate offers a free blood pressure screening.

That was the starting point for Back Bay Mission, which serves individuals facing homelessness, for whom health issues are a frequent challenge. Alice Graham, Back Bay’s executive director, says the new position fills a key gap in the organization’s services, not only to clients, but also to the broader community.

Tell provides information and education to the community around prevention and chronic diseases – particularly around cancer – and risks related to smoking, hypertension and obesity. Tell’s position is funded with a grant from an organization focused on cancer, high rates of which are found in the Gulf Coast region.

Back Bay Mission serves about 50 people each day in its day center, where individuals can shower and get a break from the streets, Graham says. The ministry also serves individuals who need emergency assistance, providing help with utilities, a food pantry and case management. In all, the mission has served more than 4,200 clients since January, Graham says.

“We’re actively working with families and individuals to move forward and create a greater level of stability,” she says. “And for all of the various populations who we serve, health is a major issue.”

Tell received specialized training through Tulane University and the University of South Alabama, to provide grassroots, down-to-earth outreach to individuals with information about healthy lifestyles and issues ranging from smoking and diet to physical activity and medication. She teaches classes about chronic diseases and healthy lifestyles at Back Bay Mission and throughout the community in churches, schools, senior centers and other nonprofit agencies and also provides information at local events such as festivals and health fairs.

It hasn’t been as easy a sell as she had expected, Tell says.

“I thought I’d have to limit the number of people in my classes,” she says. “Instead, I’ve really had to create the interest.”

Momentum is growing, though, Tell says, as pastors and others who may have attended a class spread the word. Based on her own assessments of what people know before and after her classes, Tell says she’s encouraged by the results.

“I see that people have new knowledge, and they know what they can do differently to improve their health,” she says.

In the Chicago area, 26 hospitals and six public health departments began working together a year and a half ago as the Health Impact Collaborative of Cook County to focus on prevention as a way to improve health in the region, says Condon of Advocate Health, which is helping to lead the effort.

“The best practices are found when many organizations are working together,” Condon says. “The problems are often far more complex than any one organization can address.”

As a first step, the collaborative is completing a community health needs assessment, with a particular focus on three major needs – mental health, obesity and access to care.

“Unless you begin to look at causes, you can’t really solve the problems,” says Condon, a member of the collaborative’s steering committee. “We need to look at the social determinants of health.”

To illustrate, she uses an example of a child with asthma who misses so much school he or she risks failing the grade. The parent misses so much work caring for the child that his or her job is in jeopardy. But the child’s asthma may be caused by environmental conditions in the home, and part of the solution may be mold abatement and pest control.

“We need to look at the bigger picture,” Condon says. “We’ve had a model [of health care] in our country based on sickness care, not on wellness care or prevention. Until you address that, you’re not going to see much improvement.”

And although she likens the shift in direction to “turning a big, big ship,” Condon is encouraged by the players now working together to do so.

“It’s the right thing to do,” she says.

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