New URMC Program to Focus on Health Behaviors

Feb. 7, 2010

The University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) today announced the inauguration of the Healthy Living Center. This new initiative – which is part of the Center for Community Health – will offer clinical lifestyle change programs and conduct research on the design, evaluation, and implementation of programs to decrease tobacco exposure, increase physical activity, improve nutrition, and increase adherence to medications to prevent and improve management of chronic diseases.  

“The Healthy Living Center represents a unique marriage of clinical behavior change services and behavior research,” said Nancy M. Bennett, M.D., director of the Center for Community Health and Professor of Medicine. “It will address the fundamental questions of how to motivate people to make healthy choices in their lives and how to take programs that we know are effective and ensure that they are being adopted on a community-wide basis.”

“Poor diet, smoking, and sedentary lifestyle contribute to 35 percent of all premature deaths and, by some estimates, account for 70 percent of all health care costs,” said Geoff Williams, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of medicine at URMC and director of the Healthy Living Center . “These behaviors persist despite the existence of effective and proven methods to improve health. This program will focus on what we believe is the most important piece of making a major health transformation, and that is helping individuals discover their personal desire to change.”

Nancy M. Bennett, M.D.

The Healthy Living Center is located on a newly refurbished floor in the Eastman Building at 46 Prince Street in Rochester, above the offices of the Center for Community Health.  The facilities consist of office space, conference rooms, exam rooms, and a teaching kitchen and physical activity space. The building has free parking and offers access to other health information resources such as the Healthy Living Library.

The research mission of the program, which is supported by a $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will bring together behavioral scientists, practicing clinicians (through the Greater Rochester Practice Based Research Network) and community intervention specialists to create multidisciplinary research teams and a community-wide network of physicians to evaluate and disseminate new health interventions. The new NIH grant is a supplement to the URMC Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute and is funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The goal of the Healthy Living Center will be to better understand the factors on an individual, family, and community-wide level that play a role in an individual’s health and create new resources for physicians, individuals, and community programs. An example of a concept that researchers are pursuing is the creation of a “virtual clinician” that will – through a series of computer-based questions and answers – help people stop smoking and address other health problems. The virtual clinician will be evaluated in both physicians’ offices, where it can help guide and improve the face-to-face discussions between doctors and patients, and in the workplace as part of employee wellness programs.

Geoffrey Williams, M.D., Ph.D.

The Center is also launching a wellness program for University of Rochester employees. This program will be offered to other Rochester-area employers and physicians can directly refer patients for lifestyle interventions. The Center will provide individual and group support for those who wish to prevent diabetes, manage cholesterol, manage stress, and kick tobacco addition.

“The Healthy Living Center is designed to help address that space between a person’s desire and their capacity to make meaningful and lasting changes that improve their health,” said Bennett. “The barrier to change is not a lack of desire; people desperately want to change. It is that they just can’t get over that initial hump. We all struggle with these challenges day in and day out. Our goal is to help people feel that they are in control of that struggle rather than the struggle controlling them.”

In addition to Bennett and Williams, participating URMC faculty include Holly Lavigne, Ph.D., Daryl Sharp, Ph.D., R.N., and Michael Krasner, M.D.  Kacie Cook R.D., C.D.N. will provide nutrition counseling, Laurie Beall, N.P. will assist with patient treatment and Edward Bender M.S., will provide tobacco dependence counseling.  Laurie Passalacqua is the senior project manager and Bea Ryan Smith is outreach coordinator.  The center is also in the process of hiring an exercise physiologist, mental health provider, and administrative support. Initially the Healthy Living Center will employ a total of 14 people.