April 4, 2012

Northwest Georgia Healthcare Partnership seeks to improve community health status

Submitted by the Northwest Georgia Healthcare Partnership

— Imagine 30 leaders of business and industry, health care providers, local government, education and public health volunteering to put aside their personal agendas.

Now, imagine the leaders of these sectors each offering their resources.

Finally, imagine these leaders working together, as a collaborative effort, to find sustainable solutions to the community’s emerging health issues — in the early morning hours before the work day gets started. If it sounds like a progressive scene from the future that couldn’t possibly exist in our community, think again.  

Twenty years ago, local leaders made this “futuristic” effort a reality with the creation of the Northwest Georgia Healthcare Partnership. Year after year, the Healthcare Partnership benefits from a strong commitment by the community and continues to improve the community’s overall health status by identifying sustainable solutions to significant health issues via innovation, benchmarking and application of best practices.

It was of the utmost importance of Healthcare Partnership founders that the organization was not driven by just one or two local entities. It truly had to be a community-oriented collaboration, even while addressing issues related to the topic of health.

“It was important to convince the original board that this was a genuinely collaborative effort to get community input rather than a Hamilton-driven program,” said one founding board member, Ned Wilford. Wilford was CEO of Hamilton Health Care System at the time of the Healthcare Partnership’s creation.

A lot has happened to the health of our nation and certainly in the local community in the past two decades. And, while the Healthcare Partnership continually grapples with ever-changing health issues in the community each year, the goals of the Healthcare Partnership remain the same:

• Improve the overall health status of the community while controlling costs.

• Improve accessibility to health care.

• Promote high-quality health care.

• Empower local citizens to shape health care in our community.

“We must create an environment in our community where the healthy choice is the easy choice,” says current Healthcare Partnership board vice chair and Dalton Public Schools Superintendent Jim Hawkins.

Facilitating the development of the Boys & Girls Clubs, initiating a local school nurse program, and fostering the growth and sustainability of Volunteers in Medicine & Dentistry and MedBank are just a few of the Healthcare Partnership’s accomplishments that have made choosing the healthy choice easy, not to mention countless resources and funding brought in from outside the community as a result of the shared vision among Healthcare Partnership board members and empowered community members to keep working toward a healthier community.

With so many weighty health concerns emerging on what seems to be a daily basis, how does the Healthcare Partnership determine where to focus its resources? Four focus areas currently guide the work of the partnership:

• Access to health care.

• Quality of life at the end of life.

• Chronic disease management and prevention.

• Healthy lifestyles.

A recent increase in the prevalence of chronic diseases has maximized the visibility of the Healthcare Partnership’s bilingual community health workers known as “promotoras.” The Promotoras de Salud initiative strives to serve the underserved and uninsured on a peer-to-peer level. The following five core roles have been identified in which promotoras conduct their work:

• Create a bridge between the community and health system (provide assistance in accessing the health care system, assist with completion of service applications, and facilitate patient-provider communication).

n Provide culturally appropriate health education and information (teach concepts of health promotion and disease prevention and self-management of chronic diseases).

• Assist people in getting the services they need (care management, referrals and follow-up).

• Provide informal counseling and social support (individual support and forming/leading support groups).

• Provide advocacy services for individuals to help them meet their health care needs (advocate for individuals to meet their basic health care needs).

Also serving the underserved and uninsured is the Healthcare Partnership’s child health advocate. Like the community health workers, the child health advocate is bilingual and assists qualifying families in our area in the enrollment of children in PeachCare for Kids or Medicaid. The two initiatives have saved our community more than $3 million in the past year alone.  

“We should take advantage of the unique attributes of our community and pull together to produce health offerings that leverage these differences to our advantage,” states former Healthcare Partnership board member and Dalton Utilities CEO Don Cope.

The first Erwin Mitchell Community Health Fair held in February at the new Dalton Community Center leveraged free health-related resources and services for approximately 2,400 people. Former Healthcare Partnership board member Dr. Pablo Perez asked the partnership to assume the leadership role of the annual community health fair previously held at the local trade center. In assuming leadership, the Healthcare Partnership added a “healthy lifestyles” focus to the health fair.

Emphasizing an active lifestyle is among the Healthcare Partnerships many projects and initiatives, by not only orchestrating the annual Bill Gregory Healthcare Classic road race that will take place at Bradley Wellness Center on May 5, but also by promoting the area’s “Community In-Motion” challenge.

The challenge is a call to all area businesses, schools, organizations, clubs and individuals to join the fight against obesity by pledging to achieve at least the minimal requirements of physical activity required for a healthy lifestyle. Since 2009, millions of miles of movement have been logged by community members and monitored by “red running man” signs placed around the community. Due to the challenge’s success, this year brings an eight million mile goal for the challenge as well as the construction of eight new signs and its own website/online presence.  

Nutrition is on the Healthcare Partnership’s radar also. In May, the Healthcare Partnership will evaluate a prototype at a local school that has focused on the consumption of caloric beverages among students and their families.  

“We need to continue to educate children and adults on obesity and increase our efforts to help them have healthy diets and control their weight,” said Linda Blackman, a current Healthcare Partnership board member.

Plans to expand the prototype are already under way. Mid-prototype evaluation results have reflected a change in reported beverage choices among students at the prototype’s study school. The results at the control school reflect no change in behavior. Ultimately BMI (body mass index) monitoring will report the level of the prototype’s success.

Measuring the work of the Healthcare Partnership is a standard. This past year’s outcome projections show that for every dollar spent on the Healthcare Partnership’s work to improve the community’s health, the return on investment is $17.50.

Clearly, a healthier community is a win for everyone, but it’s common to take the “Band-Aid” approach when addressing community health concerns. Medicating only the symptoms rather than the root causes may deliver short-term solutions with quick results; however, the Healthcare Partnership recognizes the benefits of providing long-term, sustainable solutions for everyone. Looking ahead to serving the community for the next 20 years will be the most important way the Healthcare Partnership celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2012.

For more information on the Northwest Georgia Healthcare Partnership, please visit www.NGHP.org.