Strong Health Launches 20-Year Effort to Help Make Rochester America's Healthiest Community

October 18, 2000

Imagine a health care system committed to helping people avoid the need for its services by providing easy access to health information, preventing strokes by teaching simple self-monitoring techniques, and instilling healthful habits in children who have diabetes so they can avoid complications later in life.

Now imagine a health care system that provides these services and believes it can actually help stem the tide of rising health care costs. Today, Strong Health announces it is taking this bold step, launching a 20-year initiative to help make Rochester the healthiest community in the nation by the year 2020.

Project Believe will effectively partner Strong Health with schools, employers, churches, and other organizations to provide information about healthful lifestyles and develop ways to interrupt cycles of illness and injury.

Consumers will be able to access free health screenings and education classes, Web-based health risk assessments, and other community outreach activities. In addition, for each of the next 20 years, Strong Health will introduce at least one new project to improve community health status, working off of public health priorities established through Monroe County's Health Action initiative.

"Project Believe is our commitment to use Strong's leadership position and resources to make a major improvement in the health of everyone in our community," says Jay H. Stein, M.D., Strong Health CEO. "This is the right thing to do, both in terms of quality of life and as the only ethical and sustainable way to temper the rise of health care costs."

Today's announcement will be made at School No. 33, one of 30 Rochester city schools participating in a new program that represents the essence of Project Believe. The goal of the program is to help children who have asthma receive preventative medications by working closely with the schools and their nurses.

Research Leads to Intervention

Asthma is the most common chronic illness of childhood, and hospitalization rates for childhood asthma have increased despite improvements in asthma therapy.

This year, physicians at Children's Hospital at Strong published a study in the journal Pediatrics showing that as many as 2 million U.S. children with moderate to severe asthma are not receiving recommended preventive medications.

Based on this knowledge, Children's Hospital physicians collaborated with the Rochester City School District and the Monroe County Department of Health to create a school-based intervention for select children ages 4-6 who attend Rochester schools. It involves the delivery of once-a-day preventive asthma medications in the school setting by a school nurse.

These medications will also be provided to parents/caretakers and adherence will be encouraged at home on non-school days.

Children attending preschool, kindergarten, or first grade in 30 schools within the school district will be screened for eligibility. All families involved in the study will be contacted by phone once a month to assess asthma symptoms, the need for rescue asthma medications, and the need for health care services. The program is funded by a major grant from the Halcyon Hill Foundation.

Measurable Benefits

Physicians are tracking whether this school-based intervention reduces asthma symptoms and improves the overall health and well-being of young, urban children who have asthma. They will also be documenting whether these children require fewer visits to their doctor or to the emergency department, fewer hospitalizations, and decreased school absenteeism caused by asthma.

"It's clear that a child's health can be a real benefit to his or her performance in school, or a real impediment to learning and success," says Andrew MacGowan, project administrator of research, evaluation, and testing for the Rochester City School District. "For instance, asthma can lead to poor school attendance, which is a major factor in school failure among young children."

District statistics show as many as 14 percent of this year's kindergartners exhibit symptoms of asthma, a condition MacGowan believes may be "our top health concern among our youngest students.

"This partnership is the right project at the right time for the right people," MacGowan says. "This is a new way of tackling these types of community health problems, the kind of innovative thinking and partnership we need to address these situations."

In addition to Strong Health, school officials acknowledge the district's partnership with Monroe County Health Department, School Health Services, and credit the school nurses who are doing much of the "heavy lifting." MacGowan also gives credit to the Halcyon Hill Foundation for funding a "visionary" program.

In addition to quality of life improvements, community health improvement initiatives - like the school-based asthma intervention - can have an immediate and measurable impact on the cost of health care. For instance, at Strong Memorial Hospital alone, children with asthma account for about 1,800 visits each year to the emergency department, and nearly one in four children will require admission. The cost of caring for these patients tops $2 million, a health care investment that could be dramatically curbed with sound, preventive strategies.

Broadening the Scope

Health promotion experts have long understood the potential of preventive medicine to lower costs. A recent national study by the health information company, the Medstat Group, estimates that about 25 percent of our nation's health care costs (some $250 billion per year) is spent on medical care for unhealthy habits and other modifiable health risks.

"There is a tremendous opportunity to make a real and positive impact by instilling, promoting, and supporting sound health habits. Through Project Believe, Strong Health and the Medical Center will concentrate on making improvements in areas in which we can make a measurable and sustainable improvement," says Lowell Goldsmith, M.D., dean emeritus at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. Since stepping down as dean earlier this year, Goldsmith has begun devoting himself full-time to the Project Believe initiative.

"We're interested in building on many of the programs we already have in place - such as programs to help chronically ill children - as well as launching new projects that have the potential to make a real difference for people, areas such as hypertension and depression," Goldsmith says.

Both hypertension and depression were named as top public health concerns in Health Action's latest community health assessment.

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Teri D'Agostino
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