Gauging if Chronic Diseases can be Tamed By Enlisting Residents of an Entire County

Increasingly, the health care community is experimenting to see if managing the health of a defined population – say diabetics – improves their health and also reduces the cost of health care or its rise over time. In other words, the healthcare profession seeks to determine if value can displace volume (our fee-for-service tradition) in delivering medical services. Humana’s first-of-its-kind, two-year pilot health-and-wellness program may provide some welcome answers.

A unique factor of the Team Up 4 Health program reflects its participants – hundreds of residents in Bell County, Kentucky (population: 28,750). Statistics show that its population bears a high incidence of preventable chronic illnesses. One-third of the county’s adults are obese and one-in-eight has Type 2 diabetes.

During the past 18 months, more than 700 residents have participated in this program, which seeks to discover if leveraging human relationships can unleash “contagious health” and make inroads against chronic illnesses. Humana is partnering with the Bell County Health Department, which manages the program, and Microclinic International, a nonprofit that believes that microclinics (or groups) of two-to-six people can work within their broader social network to achieve individual and collective health goals. In collaboration with researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health, Microclinic International uses a randomized controlled trial design to understand the effects the program in having on participants.

Chronic diseases are a major health problem

The occurrence of chronic diseases has become an epidemic. They’re among the most common, avoidable and costly health problems in the U.S. They account for 70 percent of American deaths annually.

So in July 2011, a first group of 265 Bell County residents began spending 10 months taking steps, quite literally, to improve their health and wellness. They strolled two new “fitness” parks, exercised outdoors, used the local swimming pool more often and planted a community garden. They sought to determine if they could eat better and get more exercise by encouraging each other to make small, healthier choices that would become a part of their lifestyle. Initial findings are encouraging. Virtually all (97percent) of first-year participants posted improvements in at least one of four key health measures. As a group, they shrunk their body mass index, lost an average six-and-a-half pounds each, reduced symptoms of diabetes and lowered their blood pressure.

These lifestyle changes are not simply impacting participants; family and friends are seeing benefits of the program as well. Participants are passing on their knowledge to loved ones and spreading the positive learned behaviors within their communities. They’re making little lifestyle changes that are adding up in a big way.

Participants are exercising more and making healthier food choices such as buying whole wheat rather than white flour products. And 84 percent say they’ve improved their confidence in some manner. “I’ve seen hundreds of lives change in positive ways,” says Leigh Ann Baker, Team Up 4 Health program manager who is affiliated with the county health department. Participants agree. First-year participant Willene Black says, “I’ve learned that it’s about making small healthy choices every day.”

A second group of more than 500 residents are participating in the last half of the pilot program. Humana and researchers from Harvard and Microclinic International await the final results from the entire program before making any firm conclusions. One particular question unanswered: Will this type of initiative help to prevent and chronic disease and lead to better health?

Humana, whose dream is to help people achieve lifelong well-being, sure hopes so. The results will provide critical insight not only into community health and wellness programs, but also the ability of individuals to become catalysts for healthy change in their community.

Alan Player is a communications consultant at Humana Inc. and the Humana Lead of the Team Up 4 Health initiative.

3 replies »

  1. Enjoyed reading this, very good stuff, thanks . “It is well to remember that the entire universe, with one trifling exception, is composed of others.” by John Andrew Holmes.

  2. Hello Alan –

    I would love to know more. I’m trying to foster a larger-scale version of this trial that would have a business model. Please do write to me at edyson at edventure.com. Thank you!