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What If Our Healthcare System Kept Us Healthy?

Submitted by on June 10, 2013 – 9:51 AM

A TED Talk Analysis Feature by

Anyone familiar with the American health care system knows that the focus is mostly on getting people healthy again after they get sick. Doctors usually only see patients when they fall ill. They prescribe antibiotics and other drugs to hopefully get people back to health as quickly as possible?

But what if we were able to take another approach? What if we could connect with the needy in our community in a way that will not only help them get well, but to stay well? In some cases, we could be able to help them change their lives in a way so that they do not get sick in the first place.

And what if the resources to transform our healthcare system were mostly right in front of us?

This is what Rebecca Onie has been working on for the past 20 years. Onie is the founder of Health Leads, a program that helps to connect patients to basic care and resources, such as food, transportation, child care, insurance and housing, that are the root cause of many health problems.

In 2012, she gave a talk on called What If Our Health Care System Kept Us Healthy? There she talked about the transformative health care program her company is in the midst of.

Onie’s efforts all started in the early 1990s when she was an intern in a housing unit in an attorney’s office in Boston. She had a chance to talk to many people with low income people with many housing issues and health issues. Clients didn’t pay rent because they had to pay for HIV medication. A young girl had asthma because her low income home was infested with roaches. In these types of cases, the illness usually had an underlying cause that needed to be addressed.

Onie got frustrated with intervening too late, with patients already sick and in crisis. At the end of her first year in college, she started to work with low income people at a hospital in Boston. Too many patients and too little time for docs to see everyone.

She asked doctors what was one thing that they would want to change. It was that kids would come in sick and they would give them medicines, but the problem was always something underlying – no food at home, or the the child has 12 people living in his apartment, but there was nothing the doctor could really do.

One doctor noted that he had 13 minutes with each patients.There were two social workers for 24,000 pediatric patients. There just wasn’t enough time to give the patients the care they need.

Today, her Health Leads program allows doctors to provide food, heat, drugs, child care, transportation and much more to patients in need. This helps them to get on a permanent path to wellness and health.

Health Leads now has 1000 college advocates that connect 9000 families to the resources they need.

She noted her in TED talk that If we are honest and listen, we all want our health care to keep us healthy. What if we decided to choose differently? Take all parts of health care and make them used for our purposes and aspirations.

At Health Leads, when patients come to the hospital or waiting room, a college volunteer will ask:
Are you running out of food. Are you living in a safe place? By addressing the underlying causes, the program is able to really make a difference in the health of thousands of needy families.

Now, if a person comes in with a high BMI, which shows they are obese, Health Leads will automatically generate an electronic health record and prescription to provide them with resources on nutrition, losing weight and getting exercise.

Onie noted that this is a big transformation of the electronic medical record to a health promotion tool. This is true health care, where docs can prescribe solutions to manage health, not just improve illnesses.

Health Leads now works with thousands of college student volunteers who help the needy to connect with the resources that they need to lead healthy lives. They connect them to food assistance, utility assistance, nutrition programs, child care and more. They also find out if they have insurance and if they have transportation to get to the doctor. This is essentially a Teach for America for Health Care. They often work in doctors offices and emergency rooms in needy communities. these are not perfect solutions, but there are vast underused healthcare resources that we need to use more.

Health Leads currently is working in Boston, Boston, Chicago, New York City, Providence, and Washington, DC. Hopefully, as the Health Leads program grows, its impact on needy families’ health can stretch across the country.

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