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Dr. Robert Bergamini: Bringing healthcare access to underserved children


By Ed Finkel
Posted: August 5, 2013 - 12:01 am ET
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A pediatric oncologist with Mercy Clinic, director of the Cardinals Kids Cancer Center at Mercy Hospital St. Louis and medical director for Mercy Palliative Care services, Dr. Robert Bergamini, aka “Dr. Bob,” shares his expertise well beyond his day jobs.

He's played a key role in the Mercy's partnership with HealthTeacher, a Web-based tool that encourages kids to make healthier lifestyle choices, traveling to schools to explain how the program works and why Mercy was willing to invest $6 million to provide it. Topics included diet and exercise, managing stress, and avoiding drugs and alcohol, urging healthy habits that hopefully will become lifelong.

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“We view health literacy as a 21st century skill, yet you find people are getting information that's inaccurate; people are getting information that's dangerous; people are getting information that's inappropriate for their medical condition,” Bergamini says. “We were looking at ways we could improve that.” Mercy would like to make the system accessible to 1 million students, and so far they've reached an estimated 860,000, he says.

“Dr. Bob believes a key ingredient to solving the youth health crisis is to help every child develop good health habits at a young age, leveraging the place where these kids spend seven hours per day—school,” says Scott McQuigg, CEO of HealthTeacher.

Bergamini, 58, one of 10 finalists for Modern Healthcare's 2013 Community Leadership Award, also led an effort to bring a Mercy Clinic to Roosevelt High School, located in a hardscrabble St. Louis neighborhood, which offers physicals, immunizations and care for illnesses like asthma, pneumonia and ear infections.

Michael Garrett, manager of pediatric services at the clinic, notes that many students belong to underserved, underinsured families. “They miss school and their parents miss work to see a physician—and they often wait for hours in an emergency department—for routine care such as physical exams and required immunizations. Dr. Bergamini had the vision to bring access to kids at their school.”

In his effort to help expand school-based clinics across the Mercy system, Bergamini also has turned his attention to the rural community of Mansfield, Ark., where Mercy is opening space this school year at Mansfield Elementary School. Staffed by two nurse practitioners, the clinic will have four exam rooms, a procedure room and two rooms set up for telehealth services.

The physical and emotional consequences of teen sexuality are a frequent topic on which Bergamini speaks at schools and youth organizations, where he provides information on the effects of early sexual activity and risks of sexually transmitted diseases.

Says the Rev. Michael Lydon, president of Bishop DuBourg High School in St. Louis, “ 'Dr. Bob' performs a valuable, impassioned and rare services of education and human formation for both teens and their parents. He is a doctor who truly cares, who goes out of his way.”

The community has plenty of health access, Bergamini says, and “yet you go over to the school, and less than 15% of the kids have seen a physician outside od the emergency room in the last four years because their parents can't take time off from work.”


Ed Finkel is a freelance writer in Evanston, Ill. Reach him at edfinkel@earthlink.net



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