REACH sets goal of healthy communities

Rick Wagner • May 12, 2007 at 11:33 AM

Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia health care officials, governments and community groups may be about to come together to focus on health and preventative medicine.

At least that's what a regional health care conference held earlier this month is trying to jump-start.

The Shaping for the Future: Healthy Children, Healthy Choices, Healthy Communities conference was sponsored by the Regional Education and Action Coalition for Health (REACH) and presented by Wellmont Health System.

The May 2 conference kicked off a yearlong initiative of REACH, an outgrowth of Kingsport Tomorrow.

"That was the first step of a journey, this conference," said Pat Kane, Wellmont senior vice president of marketing and communications.

Although Wellmont helped lead the way with funding for nationally known speakers, Kane said the community health initiative envisioned by REACH must come from the grass roots.

"Ask people to capitalize on what they do best toward a common goal," Kane said of the process Wellmont wanted to help spark with the conference.

"You can't do big social programs from a health care system level," Kane said. "The grass-roots groups have to take the initiative."

He said ideas coming out of the conference include tracking children at risk for obesity and other health problems, health education, and anti-bullying programs. But Kane and Andy Hall, director of community affairs for Wellmont, said REACH officials in months to come will formulate a direction.

"It's not for us to tell them what to do," Kane said. "It's for them to tell us what they need. It's not hospital-driven."

However, Kane said Wellmont is not limiting its involvement in community health to what emerges from REACH.

For instance, he said Wellmont plans to work with a Hawkins County after-school recreational program for children put together by attorney Mike Faulk,

In addition, he said Wellmont will work with Bristol's Promise, a children's advocacy group.

With a broad base of participants and members from Johnson City, Bristol and Kingsport, as well as some from Southwest Virginia, Hall said REACH will identify priorities as it evaluates the conference.

Already, however, he said requests have come from Southwest Virginia for Wellmont to provide smoking cessation and help with anti-drug programs in the schools.

"We'll re-evaluate where we need to be and find programs in those areas," Hall said.

For instance, Kane said Wellmont can adopt its smoking cessation program intended for adults to teens.

"The role of a health system as stewards of the community is part of our mission," Kane said. "Our goal is to be a catalyst in the community."

Kane said the 800 physicians and other trained medical personnel can be a resource and clearinghouse for grass-roots groups such as school officials, social services, wellness, nutrition and others in REACH.

"The first step was to get us all together," Kane said of the conference, designed to bring national experts on community health and to present best practices to the 250 in attendance.

Among others, they heard from Dr. David Katz, who talked about the "Unfattening of American Families"; Mark Fenton, host of "America's Walking" on PBS, who spoke about making communities walking and biking friendly; and Jerry Noyce of Health Fitness Corp., who spoke on "Building a Healthy and Productive Work Force" and the economic costs of an unhealthy one.

To get a general idea of what REACH could become, Kane said Conemaugh Health System in Johnstown, Pa., has had a commitment to community health and preventative measures for 10 years.

Dr. Richard Salluzzo, chief executive officer and president of Wellmont, headed Conemaugh before coming to Wellmont in 2004, and Kane also worked for Conemaugh.

The Conemaugh Health System Office of Community Health has made Memorial Medical Center, where it is based, the first and only Health-Promoting Hospital in the United States, as designated by the World Health Organization.

A program called Kidshape - somewhat similar to the Health U programs of Holston Medical Group, including the Lose It 4 Good program for youth - has been recognized by the Highland Foundation as No. 1 in families who graduate from it and No. 1 in decreasing body mass indexes of participants.

Dr. Matt Masiello, director of the Conemaugh Health System Office of Community Health since it began in 1997, said hospital systems that want to be community health advocates must put resources into health professionals focused on community health.

"We were jump-started in 1997-98, with the arrival of Dr. Salluzzo," Masiello said.

He said Conemaugh, under Salluzzo, began committing the resources to what was then the Child and Adolescent Health and Wellness Council, which began the Office of Community Health.

Today, using hospital and grant funding, he, two public health professionals with master's degrees and four nurses work for the Office of Community Health, not counting contracted services from nutritionists, fitness professionals, behavioral health experts and others.

Masiello said his office provides direct support for community health by doing things like measuring the impact of health initiatives, including the gathering of statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, health departments and other sources of a baseline with which to compare results.

"We monitor and evaluate these programs," Masiello said.

Data also can provide a guide to prioritizing and choosing healthy community initiatives by making sure they are data driven.On the other hand, he said no preventative health programs should be started without community buy in.Masiello said REACH should determine community needs, community priorities, available funding and sustainability.For instance, he said his office is available to answer questions from government and school officials about things like physical activity and making walking and biking more attractive.

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