Bell County’s ‘fresh approach’ to curbing chronic disease showing signs of promise
The Team Up 4 Health pilot project is the result of a partnership between Humana, Bell County Health Department and Microclinic International. (Photo captured from YouTube video)
By Alan Player Special to KyForward
Anyone who wonders whether people can take ownership of their health and make progress in curbing preventable chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes, ask residents of Bell County in southeastern Kentucky.
For the past 18 months, more than 700 of the county’s 28,750 residents have been participating in a first-of-its-kind pilot health and wellness program called Team Up 4 Health to determine just that. The two-year program is sponsored by Louisville-based Humana.
To create Team Up 4 Health, Humana has partnered with the Bell County Health Department and Microclinic International, a nonprofit organization that touts the importance of leveraging human relationships to unleash “contagious health” and make inroads against preventable chronic illnesses.
Chronic diseases a major health problem
Chronic diseases are among the most common, avoidable and costly health problems in the U.S. Chronic illnesses – heart and kidney disease, cancer and diabetes, among others – account for 70 percent of American deaths annually.
That’s why in July 2011, a first group of 265 Bell County residents began spending 10 months taking steps – literally – to improve their health and wellness. They got active, vigorously exercising outdoors at two new “fitness” parks (installed as part of the program), used the community swimming pool more often and planted a community garden. They sought to determine if, by working together, people – in this case, an entire county – can eat better, get more exercise and, in the process, encourage each other to make healthier choices that would become a part of their lifestyle.
A second group of more than 500 residents is participating in the last half of the pilot program, striving to reduce their body mass index by losing weight and keeping it off. Encouraged by friends and family, they’re also trying to decrease their blood pressure and reduce the symptoms of diabetes.
First-year participant Willene Black says, “I’ve learned that it’s about making small healthy choices every day.”
Bell County was tapped for the pilot because it ranked among the areas with greatest need and because residents voiced a desire to try a fresh approach to preventing chronic diseases. In Bell County, 34 percent of adults are obese and 12.4 percent of adults have diabetes.
Like many states throughout the country, Kentucky has seen an increase in the number of residents with preventable diseases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that the state’s rate of obesity had climbed more than 30 percent in recent years.
The county’s health department manages and executes the program, which includes regular group activities, health screenings and the oversight of “microclinics” that consist of two to six participants. The microclinic concept, from Microclinic International based on cutting-edge epidemiological evidence, holds that healthy behaviors are transmittable across social networks. A Team Up 4 Health community advisory board that comprises leaders from medicine, education and religion, among others, provides cultural expertise as it relates to employing the program successfully in Bell County.
Early results are promising
For its efforts, Humana wants to learn about social health change through this pilot. Therefore, research is a very important part of the Team Up 4 Health program. Microclinic International’s research team, which includes Harvard researchers, is running an Institutional Review Board-approved, randomized controlled trial that will gauge the effectiveness of the Team Up 4 Health program on improving people’s health and spurring positive behavior changes.
Initial findings are encouraging. Nearly all (97 percent) of first-year participants posted improvements in at least one of four key health measures. As a group, they’ve shrunk their body mass index, lost an average 6 1/2 pounds each, reduced symptoms of diabetes and lowered their blood pressure.
In addition, they’re exercising more and making healthier food choices such as buying whole wheat rather than white flour products. And 84 percent say they’ve improved their confidence in some manner.
“I’ve seen hundreds of lives change in positive ways,” says Leigh Ann Baker, Team Up 4 Health program manager who is affiliated with the county health department.
“I’ve been able to take this to my family and friends, and when they see changes, they become more motivated as well,” says participant Black.
“When I’m eating well, I feel healthier. And when I feel healthier, I feel better about myself,” says another participant.
Alan Player is a communications consultant at Humana.