Rural Health Initiative earns state and national recognition
When a trip to the doctor can cost you a half day’s labor, it’s easy to see how blood pressure checks and cholesterol screenings can take a back seat to the more pressing matter of making a living on a farm. That is, until living itself becomes jeopardized.
“If people in farming communities, for example, forgo preventative health care because of their busy lifestyles or because of the cost, then by the time they make it into our emergency room, their health is often in crisis,” says Brian Burmeister, senior vice president of Primary Care/Rural Campuses/Behavior Health at ThedaCare.
It’s a familiar scenario for people living in rural communities around Northeast Wisconsin, where access to health care was once limited primarily to urban areas.
“Farmers are self-employed, working long hours, often far away from the nearest hospital or clinic,” explains Rhonda Strebel, executive director of the Rural Health Initiative, a non-profit program focused on improving the health of Wisconsin’s rural residents. “The reason that this group is often missed is they’re just out there doing their work and there’s a lot of isolation. It’s a cultural thing.”
Recognizing the need to bring health care out to the rural population, rather than making patients travel to the city, ThedaCare and other Northeast Wisconsin medical groups have been expanding their facilities and services into a growing network of remote locations.
“We know we have to invest in having clinics and facilities, programs and services in the region where our customers are and that we are very much accessible to them,” says Chris Woleske, executive vice president of Bellin Health and CEO of Oconto Hospital.
The Rural Health Initiative was launched in Shawano County in 2003 by ThedaCare and Shawano Medical Center (now part of ThedaCare) in partnership with the county extension service, public health department and local schools.
As part of the program, a nurse makes free house calls to all interested farm families to provide health information, education, referrals to area services and listen to the families’ health concerns.
The program is privately funded primarily by ThedaCare along with other local businesses, foundations and community members. Now expanded into Outagamie and Waupaca counties, the Rural Health Initiative has received both state and national recognition within the past year, but the real winner, according to program leaders, is the Northeast Wisconsin community as a whole.
“We’re all part of the same community,” Strebel says. “If part of us is not healthy, all of us are not healthy.”
Bellin’s Oconto Hospital and Medical Center provides another example of partnering with local agencies to stretch health care dollars further into remote locations. When the local hospital closed about eight years ago, Bellin joined the Oconto Hospital Citizens foundation to bring a hospital back into their community. The critical access hospital built in 2005 was expanded last year and offers a unique partnership in health care.
“We partnered with Northern Health Centers, which is located in Lakewood, and they operate a dental clinic in our hospital which is very unique,” explains Woleske, adding, “What we were seeing in our hospital ERs is a lot of people who had unmet dental needs. The emergency care is expensive and it’s not the best location for those types of services.”
The facility opened in 2012 and primarily serves the at-risk population that otherwise wouldn’t have access to dental care or dental insurance.
“What’s going to be interesting for us to watch and see is the reduction of number of visits to the emergency department that are related to dental issues. In terms of improving the overall health of the community, it’s made a significant impact,” says Woleske.
That type of collaboration between health care providers not only better serves rural communities, from a business perspective it can be highly cost effective.
“In the old world, hospitals and clinics were there for when you were sick. The new world is keeping people healthy, keeping them from having to use the higher, more expensive resources,” Burmeister says. “Preventative care, earlier diagnosis; if we can do that well then we’re preventing downstream additional costs.”
ThedaCare Medical Center currently operates five hospitals from the Fox Valley to Waupaca, New London and Shawano, as well as 22 physician locations encompassing nine counties throughout Northeast Wisconsin.
The Bellin health system is composed of Bellin Hospital and Bellin Psychiatric Center in Green Bay, Oconto Hospital, 26 primary care clinics in Northeast Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula, along with several retail health FastCare clinics.
Ahead of the Cutting-Edge
Recently, Affinity Health Care and WebOuts, LLC, a company that specializes in website innovation, teamed up to educate the public about the future of robotic surgery. The two companies created a 360-degree video that provides an interactive look inside an Affinity operating room fitted with a robotic surgical device.
“Our specialists are committed to offering the least invasive surgical options available,” says Heather Schimmers, director of surgical services at Mercy Medical Center (above) in the video. “Using advanced technologies like the robot, we’re making surgery so much easier on your body.”
The robot is controlled by surgeons and used to avoid mistakes that human hands might afford a patient while under the knife, such as collateral trauma, which could result in a longer recovery time.
“Affinity told us how important it was to them that patients learn that robotic surgery isn’t just about the advanced robot technology,” says Michael Hagen, president of WebOuts. “It’s also about the knowledge, expertise, care and concern that their surgeons, nurses, and the entire staff has for each patient they serve.” The video is available at www.affinityhealth.org. —Sean Lyons