Last month, United Neighborhood Health Services kicked off a personal health plan program for residents in South and East Nashville. A partnership between UNHS, local churches and community organizations, the individualized health plan is designed to encourage healthy choices and includes a number of resources and supports to help participants stay on track.
The new program was launched during National Health Center Week, Aug. 5-11, which had the theme ‘Powering Healthy Communities.’ Mary Bufwack, CEO of UNHS, said giving people the tools and knowledge to make better decisions for their own health and that of their families was an important step toward that goal.
“We know that to get any kind of real health change, particularly in the area of chronic disease management, that people need a plan. It needs to be deliberate, and it needs to be over time,” Bufwack said. “If we’re asking people to make these really significant changes, then we have to partner with them to help them change their behaviors rather than just delivering information.”
She continued, “We think the old models are not very effective. Chronic conditions — hypertension, obesity, diabetes — continue to rise. What we’re doing isn’t working so we have to change our models to really get at behavior.”
Healthcare professionals help create a tailored plan that accounts for an individual’s chronic conditions, as well as food and activity preferences. UNHS has retooled their health educators to become health coaches. Bufwack explained educators mainly disseminate info, whereas coaches take a more active role in supporting team members and helping them achieve their goals. “What we’re looking for is behavioral change not just a set of knowledge,” she emphasized.
To achieve that change, UNHS helps connect people to neighborhood resources … yoga at the local community center or a Zumba class led by a health coach. Of course, the coaches also do share information and ideas about how to prepare healthy meals, what to do when tempted by junk food or sweets, how to incorporate more movement into the day and steps to more effectively manage chronic diseases. The coaches, for example, might look at a typical meal and find substitute ingredients to cut down on calories, fat and salt.
“They’re going to start with what you usually eat and what you like and help you bring out the nutritional value,” Bufwack said. She noted those participating in the program are trying to change life habits. “Those changes are very difficult to make so people need plans and strategies,” she added of the health coach’s role.
The patient, however, is ultimately the quarterback. The concept is very much one of a partnership or team where the patient executes the game plan. “It gives people a sense of control and mastery. It's the choices they make that will determine the course of their condition,” Bufwack stated.
Piloted in the northeast clinics, Bufwack said the program has been in various stages of development but is now ready to roll out to a wider audience. Ultimately, the plan is to have health coaches available in the seven community clinics, two homeless clinics and the public housing clinic. The five school-based clinics will incorporate some of the programs and protocols through the use of UNHS nurse practitioners.
“We do expect people who participate to actually become medical patients with us,” noted Bufwack. “We can’t coach until we know the state of your health.” She added there is no additional charge to have a personal health plan created for UNHS patients.