NEW ULM - Dr. Edward Ehlinger, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health, got a crash course on the Heart of New Ulm program Tuesday during a visit to the New Ulm Medical Center.
Ehlinger, who said he travels frequently around the state to visit health facilities, heard about the progress the Heart of New Ulm has made since its inception in 2009. As a doctor with a background in public health, he was especially interested in how the community has bought into the program.
Rebecca Fliszar, registered dietitian, who leads the nutrition initiatives of the program, explained that the project's focus is to reduce cardiac disease in the New Ulm community through health screenings, identifying people who are at risk of developing cardiac problems and coaching them to adopt healthier life habits.
The program also encourages community-wide emphasis on healthy life habits, like eating enough fruits and vegetables each day, getting enough exercise, and proper use of prescribed medicines for blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood glucose and other controllable health problems.
Abbey Sidebottom, senior scientific advisor for Allina Hospitals and Clinics in Minneapolis, gave a recount of the results that have been gathered so far in the 10-year project. Through screenings conducted in 2009 and 2011, the project has seen improvements in many areas, with obesity rates dropping slightly, many more people eating fruits and vegetables, and exercising, and better results in the blood lipid tests, such as cholesterol and triglycerides.
HONU staffers explained how the program is partnering with work sites, providing employers with aggregate data on the health of their employees and helping them develop wellness programs; with restaurants to help them develop healthy choices on their menus; and with grocery stores and convenience stores to help people purchase healthier foods and snack foods.
Ehlinger was interested in the way the community has bought into the program. "That's what will make it sustainable," he said.
HONU staff said some of the project's programs are being taken over by other organizations such as Community Education and the Park & Rec Department. By breaking New Ulm up into many small districts, it has allowed people to develop their own activities programs.
There are many low cost and free activities, like the cooking shows that air on NuCAT, the city's public access cable channel, that other communities can adopt.
Sustainability is important, said Ehlinger, citing articles and studies that indicate the real benefit of a program like Heart of New Ulm will come in 20 or 25 years, well after the Heart of New Ulm's 10-year timeline. The staff were confident that the programs being developed will be sustainable.
Medical staff talked about the effect of identifying people who are at risk for heart attacks, people who are healthy now stand a good chance of developing heart disease or diabetes within 10 to 15 years. By reaching out to them, and making them aware of the help that is available to them, the medical center is hoping those diseases won't happen.
Dr. Joan Krikava, Medical Director for the New Ulm Medical Center, said the program has helped change the focus of the staff's doctors. When she arrived in New Ulm, she said her training and the emphasis of the doctors was to treat the sick, not to help the healthy stay healthy. That has changed considerably in the past three years, with doctors in other specialties making sure the patients they see for things like sprained ankles and sinus infections are also made aware of the things they can do to be healthier.
Toby Freier, president of NUMC, responded to a question from Ehlinger about where the savings that materialize would be spent. He said Allina is still in watching the program to see how it develops before deciding how to proceed.
Ehlinger said the discussion he had on Tuesday will help inform discussions later on about how hospitals and clinics can engage their communities, connect with social services and public health agencies and work for the better health of their communities.