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ThedaCare’s Rural Health Initiative Expands to Create Access to Care
The Rural Health Initiative will soon celebrate its 20th anniversary. The rural home health care program has come a long way since its inception as a pilot program serving farmers in Shawano County in 2004.
“The Rural Health Initiative started in 2004 after a ThedaCare Community Health Action Team (CHAT) plunge uncovered the reasons why farmers rarely sought health care except in emergency situations,” said Rhonda Strebel, manager of the now ThedaCare Rural Health Initiative. “Three major reasons were identified: 1) Lack of convenient access to health care; 2) An attitude of ‘If I can get up and get my work done, I must be okay’; and 3) Lack of affordable insurance. Being self-employed, many farmers could only afford catastrophic health insurance.”
During the listening sessions, one farm family noted that the key was brining care to the farmers.
From that, the Rural Health Initiative (RHI) was born as a non-profit, independent organization and developed its “Kitchen Wellness” program that literally took Strebel to the homes of farmers in Shawano County to do wellness health checks, including blood pressure and cholesterol readings, glucose and A1C testing, and weight and obesity checks.
“We did and continue to do basic health screenings to provide people with information about what their various readings mean,” she explained. “If necessary, we help them find a health care provider, do some health coaching and referrals.”
In the case of large dairy operations, RHI meets with the dairy workers at their workplace, do the health screenings and provide information about healthy diets, exercise and general lifestyle improvements. Breeze Dairy Group LLC, with farms in Langlade, Fond du Lac, Waushara and Pierce counties, is one large dairy operation in Northeast Wisconsin participating in the RHI program.
“Our operations are 24/7, and the opportunities for our team members to get to an offsite appointment between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. are few and far between,” explained Katie Gerrits, director of Human Resources for the Breeze Dairy Group. “We knew our team members were not getting routine health checks, and we wanted to change that. That’s why I connected with RHI. This free, onsite testing is a great benefit for our employees. I wanted to ensure we were doing what we could to support the important to work.”
Gerrits noted that she was informed about a way Breeze Dairy Group could support the RHI program. She said they are grateful for the service and were delighted to give back.
The Rural Health Initiative became a part of ThedaCare in 2021.
“As a ThedaCare program, we’re now under the umbrella of the ThedaCare Family of Foundations,” explained Strebel. “We also have a fund to which people, organizations and companies, can donate to support our efforts.”
Financial support from ThedaCare, a Health Equity Grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and contributions from generous donors have provided RHI with the funds to expand its services to seven counties ThedaCare serves – Green Lake, Marquette, Outagamie, Shawano, Waupaca, Waushara and Winnebago counties – and include anyone living in a rural area, not just farmers. RHI now has an outreach health specialist (OHS) in each of the seven counties.
“Anyone living in rural areas may call the specialist in their county to set up an appointment for a free health screening,” Strebel confirmed. “We encourage everyone to see a primary care provider regularly, and for some folks, we also understand that might not be possible for a variety of reasons. A lot of elderly people are homebound or caring for a spouse and have transportation or other issues. Those are the people we are hoping to reach. We really want to ensure they understand their health is important as well.”
The health specialists will soon be joined by two nurse practitioners (NPs) who will also conduct in-home and virtual visits with rural folks.
“We’ll continue to do the free basic health screenings, and now with nurse practitioners, we can expand our services beyond educating people about their health situations to include some clinical services, if needed,” Strebel said. “For example, those services could be testing for strep throat, urine testing and other routine tests.”
There will be a charge if any diagnostic or treatment services are offered, and those will be billed from ThedaCare. If the person or family does not have health insurance, the health specialists will connect their patients with ThedaCare benefit specialists who can assist them in locating insurance or Medicaid coverage.
In situations where people may not have a computer or Internet connection, Strebel said team member will be able to use their phone or laptop to provide a virtual connection to the NPs if they are not available in person. In addition to the NPs, RHI can now also connect their clients to a pharmacist, nutritionist and behavioral health specialists. They also have interpreters to assist in communicating with Latino and Hmong workers and families.
RHI also provides local vaccine clinics in communities, offering routine recommended vaccines such as pneumococcal pneumonia, seasonal influenza (flu), shingles, and tetanus boosters.
In 2023, RHI plans to begin offering lifestyle wellness classes, teaching people about healthy eating, including how to cook with healthier ingredients they may not be familiar with and how to revamp their recipes using healthier foods such as brown rice or quinoa instead of white rice.
“We’ll be talking about good nutrition, exercise for fitness, and mindfulness – taking time to think, pray or meditate, whatever that individual may do to calm their lives and reduce stress,” said Strebel. “Again, these classes will be offered in convenient locations where people will feel comfortable. We believe rural citizens need more opportunities to socialize with their neighbors, and these classes will be an opportunity to do that and build relationships with others who are trying to improve their health and well-being.”
For companies like the Breeze Dairy Group, RHI provides a much-needed service.
“Our company depends on these services, and we are very appreciative a program like this is available,” said Gerrits. “The health of our team members is important to us. This onsite service is a blessing. We are proud and happy to donate to RHI, and we look forward to using their services for years to come.”
For more information about RHI, visit thedacare.org/about-us/community-health/rural-health-initiative.
This article is part of a planned series featuring generous donors who support the ThedaCare Family of Foundations. Donations to the ThedaCare Family of Foundations help fund projects and programs on many levels across the system.
If you know a donor, or community organization, who has a connection to the ThedaCare Family of Foundations, and believe should be featured in the “Heart of a Donor” series, please email [email protected] To learn more about the ThedaCare Family of Foundations and the impact of donor support, please visit thedacare.org/Foundations.
ThedaCare Rural Health Initiative (RHI) team members visit Breeze Dairy Group LLC, providing farm workers wellness health checks. RHI meets with the dairy workers at their workplace, do the health screenings and provide information about healthy diets, exercise and general lifestyle improvements.
For more than 110 years, ThedaCare® has been committed to improving the health and well-being of the communities it serves in Northeast and Central Wisconsin. The organization delivers care to more than 600,000 residents in 17 counties and employs approximately 7,000 health care professionals. ThedaCare has 180 points of care, including eight hospitals. As an organization committed to being a leader in Population Health, team members are dedicated to empowering people to live their unique, best lives. ThedaCare also partners with communities to understand needs, finding solutions together, and encouraging health awareness and action. ThedaCare is the first in Wisconsin to be a Mayo Clinic Care Network Member, giving specialists the ability to consult with Mayo Clinic experts on a patient’s care. ThedaCare is a not-for-profit health system with a level II trauma center, comprehensive cancer treatment, stroke and cardiac programs, as well as primary care.
For more information, visit thedacare.org or follow ThedaCare on social media. Members of the media should call Cassandra Wallace, Public and Media Relations Consultant at 920.442.0328 or the ThedaCare Regional Medical Center-Neenah switchboard at 920.729.3100 and ask for the marketing person on call.
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‘This too shall pass away’ this famous Persian adage seems to be defeating us again and again in the case of COVID-19. Despite every effort