Healing health care

Lack of volunteers prevents Columbia health department from offering more free clinics
Thursday, October 16, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:12 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 7, 2008

Hattie Nichols waited patiently between the microwave popcorn display and a table of baked goods at Moser’s Discount Foods while a nurse checked her blood pressure. She appeared content as the pressure cuff was removed from her arm.

“I keep a close watch on my blood pressure,” said Nichols, 73, of Ashland, as she handed the nurse a card on which she frequently records her blood pressure readings.

The free health screening in late September at the grocery store on Business Loop 70 was a project of the Columbia/Boone County Health Department. Sharon Acra, a volunteer nurse from Boone Hospital Center, checked customers’ blood pressure, blood glucose and body mass indices.

The screening clinic was part of an effort by the Columbia/Boone County Health Department to improve health awareness by expanding outreach services. Health department planner Chris Coffman hopes to hold a screening clinic every two to three weeks at Moser’s and to expand the clinics to other grocery stores and public venues around Columbia. He’s also working with Neighborhood Watch groups to explore the possibility of neighborhood screening clinics.

Program promotes early detection of health problems

The success of the outreach effort, however, depends on two things: businesses and other venues willing to open their doors and residents willing to volunteer, Coffman said. Lack of volunteers has kept Coffman from holding another screening.

The department already runs a weekly screening clinic at the Activity and Recreation Center, but most people who visit the ARC are conscious of health issues, Coffman said.

Acra said screenings elsewhere will target a different group. “We’re trying to find those people who don’t know they have problems,” she said.

Acra said the main goal is to find health problems early and to steer people toward medical care. Patients unable to afford health care can be referred to social workers.

Acra said many of the people they screen for health problems are elderly and covered by Medicaid.

Outreach services need volunteers

Volunteers are what Coffman and the health department need most for the program. Coffman said he’d like to recruit 300 volunteers to help with the effort.

A grant from the U.S. Surgeon General will help Coffman be more aggressive about recruiting and training volunteers. Efforts are also being made to access the 200 local volunteers with the Medical Reserve Corps, a federally funded group in place to help the community in case of bioterrorism. Coffman said 90 percent of those volunteers are involved in some kind of health profession.

Screening clinics not only promote early detection of health problems but also provide a chance for participants to interact with others. Bill Miller, who stopped for a screening and asked that his age be recorded as “seventy-one and a half,” proudly displayed for the nurse a picture of his grandson, whom he and his wife had just visited.

Kevin Jackson, a customer who watched the screenings at Moser’s, said the health department should expand its outreach programs, especially in lower-income neighborhoods. “I think they ought to set this stuff up more often,” he said.

“It’s a slow process,” Coffman said. “I want to do the service where we can do the most good.”

Health department offers variety of services

City and county areas in need of outreach services will be identified with the help of surveys. And the health department every December performs a yearly community health assessment separate from the program Coffman is leading.

In addition to the screening clinics, the health department offers a range of outreach services, including regional HIV testing and counseling for 33 counties, health fairs, monitoring of the West Nile virus, free or discounted flu shots and other immunizations, and administration of the federally funded Women, Infants and Children program. It also sponsors monthly screening clinics in seven small towns around the county.

Mary Martin, director of the health department’s clinic and nursing program, said, “The focus of public health is population-based; what we’re looking at is what people think of as chronic diseases.”

The outreach programs, Martin said, “tend to focus more on populations that have limited access to regular medical care.”

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