Real World Health Care Blog

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August Health Awareness Days Provide Opportunities to Take Action

As young people across the country go back to school, patient advocates and government stakeholders are leveraging awareness days to help communities learn about health issues impacting children, prevention strategies and efforts to improve care. Here are some examples:

Children’s Eye Health and Safety Month
Each August organizations including the Envision Foundation underscore the need for screenings and examinations to promote early detection, intervention and prevention of vision problems in children.

Paul DeMiglio

Paul DeMiglio

Vision disorders in children cost Americans more than $5.7 billion in direct and indirect expenses each year, while the overall cost of vision problems nationwide soars to an estimated $139 billion (includes long-term care, productivity loss and medical bills), according to Prevent Blindness America. Treating eye disorders and vision loss early in life helps protect children from developing chronic, lifelong conditions that become more expensive to treat because of long-term, indirect costs that increase as populations age.

“The beginning of a new school year is an exciting time in a child’s life,” Hugh R. Parry, President and CEO of Prevent Blindness America, said in a statement.  “By working together with parents and educators, we hope to give all our kids a bright and healthy start!”

National Immunization Awareness Month
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Public Health Information Coalition (NPHIC) highlights the need to improve national immunization coverage levels throughout August. To communicate the importance of immunizations now and throughout the year, NPHIC also developed a toolkit tailored to various populations including babies and pregnant women, pre-teens and teens, young adults, and adults. The toolkit seeks to:

  • Encourage parents of young children to get recommended immunizations by age 2.
  • Help parents ensure older children, preteens and teens have received all recommended vaccines by the time they return to school.
  • Remind college students to catch up on immunizations before they move into dormitories.
  • Educate adults, including health care workers, about vaccines and boosters they may need.
  • Urge pregnant women to get vaccinated to protect newborns from diseases like whooping cough.
  • Raise awareness that the next flu season is only a few months away.

The CDC also makes a wide array of resources available for those who want to learn more about the importance of immunizations or spread the word.

Neurosurgery Outreach Awareness Month
The American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS) is among the organizations that underscores why the beginning of the school year is a great time to educate communities about strategies to prevent sports-related head and neck injuries like concussions. AANS provides tools to help others more effectively identify symptoms of potentially serious head/neck injuries and take preventive steps to ensure safety, also offering the following tips:

  • Buy and use helmets or protective headgear approved by the American Society for Testing Materials for sports 100 percent of the time.
  • Remain abreast of the latest guidelines and rules governing sports with a high prevalence of head injuries including cheerleading, volleyball, and soccer.

“Concussion awareness, understanding the symptoms of a potential concussion or other traumatic brain injury, is critically important in all sports,” AANS Public Relations Committee chair Kevin Lillehei, MD, FAANS, said in a statement. “Educating the public is one of the best weapons we have when it comes to combating these types of injuries. That is why it’s so important to raise awareness in the community and explain just what some of the effects are that these injuries have.”

Psoriasis Awareness Month
Sponsored by The National Psoriasis Foundation each year, Psoriasis Awareness Month is dedicated to “raise awareness, encourage research and advocate for better care for people with psoriasis.”

The most common autoimmune disease in the US affecting 7.5 million Americans, Psoriasis occurs when the immune system sends out faulty signals that speed up the growth of skin cells and produce red, scaly patches that itch and bleed. About 20,000 children under 10 are also diagnosed, often experiencing symptoms that include pitting and discoloration of the nails, severe scalp scaling, diaper dermatitis or plaques.

As part of Psoriasis Awareness Month, NPF is creating a community of “Pscientists” to “answer real‑world questions about psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis.”

Spinal Muscular Atrophy Awareness Month
Although it’s considered a “rare disorder” with approximately 1 in 6000 babies born affected by it, Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) is a motor neuron disease that causes voluntary muscles to weaken and in some cases can lead to death, according to the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Types I, II and III belong to a group of hereditary diseases that weaken the voluntary muscles in the arms and legs of infants and children, contributing to breathing issues, difficulty eating and drinking, impaired mobility and orthopedic complications.

Families of SMA, which has coordinated activities around SMA Awareness Month since 1996, and the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA), are two national organizations that support those living with SMA. Click here to learn about events this month, community networks and research projects for treatment and therapies.

What activities are taking place in your community to support one or more of these awareness days? What could the institutions in your neighborhood, workplace or at your school be doing year-round to more effectively engage populations about critical health issues?

Categories: Access to Care

It Takes a Community for Effective Disease Prevention and Management

To help stem the tide and high cost of persisting disparities in U.S. health care, providers are leveraging Community Health Workers (CHWs) as critical players in improving health outcomes by successfully linking “vulnerable” patient populations to better care. Living in the communities where they work, CHWs understand what is meaningful to those communities, communicate in the language of those they serve, and incorporate cultural buffers to help patients cope with stress and promote health outcomes.

As the CDC reports, growing evidence supports the involvement of CHWs as a critical link between providers and patients in the prevention and control of chronic disease:

  • They help high-risk populations, especially African-American men in urban areas, to control their hypertension.
  • They enable diabetic patients to reduce their A1C values, cholesterol triglycerides and diastolic blood pressure.
  • Their interventions improve knowledge about cancer screenings as well as screening outcomes.
  • Their interventions help patients reduce the severity of asthma.

Many Americans – especially those with low incomes, have no insurance or face other socio-economic barriers to primary care – often distrust the health care system, or lack the resources and awareness needed to take charge of their health. As a result, they wait until health issues and chronic disease escalate enough to drive them into the emergency department, where they receive short-term solutions that drive up the total cost of health care.

CHWs are changing that, community by community. Examples of CHW programs – both at home and abroad – abound. One is Penn Medicine’s IMPaCT Program.

IMPaCT (Individualized Management for Patient-Centered Targets) pairs patients in need of extra support with relatable neighbors and peers (people who have shared language, ethnic and geographic backgrounds) to assist them in navigating the medical system and identify the underlying causes of illness.

“Lower income patients tend to poorly manage chronic disease and have worse health outcomes than other patient populations,” explains Dr. Shreya Kangovi, Director of the Penn Center for Community Health Workers, which houses the IMPaCT program. “They are less likely to get preventive care and more likely to end up in the hospital. This scenario leaves health care practitioners frustrated, because they can’t move the needle on health outcomes. And it makes it difficult for the health system to meet its quality targets.”

Dr. Kangovi notes that many patients served by IMPaCT didn’t have a relationship with a primary care physician prior to joining the program.

“There is a lot of focus today on reducing hospital re-admissions,” she says. “But before we can reduce re-admissions, we need to make sure patients have a substitute for the emergency department.”

She shared the story of “Ben,” a young man with a bad case of lupus and no insurance. Ben had been visiting Penn’s Emergency Department regularly for lupus flare-ups. There, he received steroids and pain medications before being sent along his way. Thanks to IMPaCT, Ben was set up with a primary care doctor who understands his health problems, and placed Ben on a better medication regimen. Not only does Ben now feel better, he has more trust in the health care system that he sees as an ally, she says.

IMPaCT currently serves about 500 patients via two programs – one for hospitalized inpatients and one for primary care outpatients. The program’s CHWs meet with patients upon admission to the hospital to set short-term goals and identify pathways to solving their clinical and socioeconomic hurdles. They advocate for patients during their hospitalization, then work with them during discharge and beyond to get them connected to resources in their community. On the primary care side, patients work with their IMPaCT partner over six months to break long-term health goals down into smaller, achievable steps.

“Once patients leave the hospital, real-life issues intervene,” Dr. Kangovi says. “IMPaCT’s community health workers address these health and life issues on the ground, and do so much better and at a much lower cost than clinically trained personnel.”

Are CHWs making a difference where you live? How are they helping to reduce costs and improve access to health care?

Categories: Access to Care

Making Life Easier for Patients and Loved Ones: Meet MyHealthTeams

Talk to anyone impacted by a chronic condition – autism, multiple sclerosis, breast cancer – whatever disease or condition, they will all tell you it’s not easy. It’s not easy finding the support that best suits them. It’s not easy finding providers. It’s not easy period. At MyHealthTeams we create social networks for chronic condition communities. We believe that when you or a loved one are diagnosed with a disease, it should be easy to connect with people just like you, who can share their daily experiences, and help you discover the best people around to help you.

Since we founded MyHealthTeams in 2010, we’ve launched three social networks – MyAutismTeam, for parents of children with autism; MyBCTeam, for women facing breast cancer; and MyMSTeam, for those living with multiple sclerosis.

Each of the social networks we’ve built has been fully embraced by the communities we’ve addressed. Our flagship community, MyAutismTeam, has in less then 24 months, grown from 30 parents to more than 40,000 parents across the US.

Emily Ybarra, mother of a 4-year old boy with autism, was having difficulty finding a dentist capable of handling her child’s sensory processing disorder – a common challenge associated with autism.  After joining MyAutismTeam she connected with other parents near her in Orem, Utah and asked if anyone could recommend a dentist capable of “working with a special-needs child who recoils from human contact.”

Within a few days she had a referral to the autism-friendly dentist she still uses today.  More important, she had established friendships with many other parents of children on the autism spectrum.  Parents nearby reached out to her, but so did parents from all across the country who could empathize with the challenges of having a child with sensory processing disorder.   She wasn’t alone and she didn’t need to reinvent the wheel.

MyBCTeam already has roughly 4,000 women on the site since our launch in September 2012 and the majority of those women are actively engaged on the site or the MyBCTeam mobile apps every month.

This past week we launched MyMSTeam and as of this writing we are already closing in on 500 registered members.

Users of all three of these social networks share recommendations of local providers, openly discuss daily triumphs and issues, share tips and advice, and gain access to local services.  Thousands of posts, comments and updates are shared every day across these three sites and that number climbs each week as the networks expand.

Three major drivers behind the growth of our sites:

  1. People crave connection with other people just like them – they just need a safe and reliable environment to do so.
  2. The simplicity of our technology – our communities reflect aspects of social networks that our users are already familiar with (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, etc.) which provides for high user engagement.
  3. The rapid word-of-mouth among these communities.

One in two Americans live with a chronic condition[i] and they are seeking support from not only their medical providers, but also from people like them. In fact, for women with breast cancer, recent studies show that having strong social support improves outcomes[ii]. Sharing with people who are in your shoes offers a sense of community that can’t be found elsewhere – these are people who know the language of your condition; they understand the daily frustrations and the small triumphs that can mean so much.

With The Affordable Care Act on the horizon, implementing and expanding wellness programs has taken on a new importance for companies.  Organizations are seeking resources that not only help improve the quality of life for their employees, but also help control health care spending. Social networks, like the ones created by MyHealthTeams, allow employers to offer unique resources to their employees allowing them to create the support networks they need to get through to the next day.

For more information on the social networks created by MyHealthTeams, visit http://www.myhealthteams.com.


[i]An Unhealthy America: The Economic Burden of Chronic Disease, Charting a New Course to Save Lives and Increase Productivity and Economic Growth, Milken Institute, By Ross DeVol and Armen Dedroussian, Oct 2007 (free download http://www.milkeninstitute.org/publications/publications.taf?function=detail&ID=38801018&cat=resrep)

[ii] Journal of Clinical Oncology, Social Networks, Social Support, and Survival After Breast Cancer Diagnosis, Candyce H. Kroenke, et al., March 1, 2006

Categories: Access to Care