|Amid the dialogue on rising healthcare costs, it is useful to keep in mind that improving people's health is not just about healing the sick and injured. Healthcare happens through community involvement as well.|
But does community involvement address our industry's inflationary woes, and if so, what programs and resources can we look to for solutions?
Since nine-hospital Iowa Health System's birth in 1993, the state's first and largest healthcare system, based in Des Moines, has worked to integrate the knowledge, skills and resources of individuals from all areas of the community to serve the public's health needs. Today, we have the people, equipment and facilities that allow us to achieve excellence in healing and treating people who were already ill or hurt. But we've also found important roles outside the walls of our hospitals and clinics that over time will improve health and lower costs.
We know there are issues like domestic violence; air and water quality; choosing whether to drink, smoke or use illicit drugs; violence in our schools; and many other problems that dramatically impact people's long-term health. It is there in the lifestyle choices and challenges we as a society face where we believe we can truly affect the health status of the people in our state.
By bringing together groups from every sector -- public, private, corporate, not-for-profits and government -- we have forged new alliances that work efficiently and effectively to conceive and create workable solutions to some of the most pressing healthcare challenges.
And all of this is additional to the thousands of employee volunteer hours and the millions of dollars contributed to our other community endeavors.
I want to specifically detail two examples of long-term approaches I believe will fundamentally change the health of Iowa's communities. Both are part of our Take Care Initiatives, a series of collaborative programs, products and services focused on education and intervention.
The first example focuses on pre-school children.
The time between infancy and school age is the most influential and productive phase of a child's development. We know that during those critical first years, children literally learns how to learn, developing the skill sets, knowledge, beliefs and values that will guide them throughout their childhood. By the time a child reaches first grade, these elements are in place.
With the majority of Iowa's children in some form of day care prior to entering first grade, Iowa Health System recognizes the critical role these caregivers play in helping shape the future of children. Unfortunately, care providers are often understaffed and do not have adequate funds to develop comprehensive educational programming.
So we partnered with the Iowa Department of Public Health to create Healthy Kids Gang, a childcare curriculum to help care providers in their important work. The 12-unit curriculum focuses on building healthy habits -- hand washing, dealing with angry feelings, building self-esteem and so on. And for each lesson there are a week's worth of age-appropriate, educational and fun activities for toddlers, pre-schoolers and kindergartners, with support materials for the caregiver and the parents. Further, Iowa Public Television has helped created a Web site that lets users find children's programs relevant to the lessons.
Healthy Kids Gang is made available to both childcare centers and home-based child-care businesses at no charge. The Iowa Department of Public Health handles the distribution, which began in fall 2002. Today, more than 1,700 of Iowa's 5,000 day-care centers have the materials.
The second example of a long-term approach is the health system's work to develop mentoring relationships for children. Mentoring is, by all accounts, the most effective tactic for combating poor choices that lead to chemical abuse, violent behaviors and other physical harm.
Consider that children in this country today average only one significant individual in their life. Not long ago, we all had about three -- two parents and a grandparent, teacher, coach or pastor. It's estimated that 50,000 Iowa youth between ages 5 to 17 could benefit from a mentor, and, as chair of the Iowa Mentoring Partnership's Leadership Council, I work with others in the public and private sector to see that youth find these important role models.
Again, Iowa Health System is not starting a new program; the Iowa Mentoring Partnership serves as an advocate and resource for mentoring programs across the state, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters and Mentor Iowa. We are simply furthering the commitment among Iowans to do what needs to be done.
And our health system has had tremendous success with our effort to date. We're approaching employers in the communities we serve and asking them to commit to introducing mentoring programs to their employees. I ask executives to sign a pledge to create a policy for their company that acknowledges, encourages and rewards volunteerism. It does not ask for time off with pay. Additionally, I ask them to sign a letter of intent to invite mentoring organizations to speak to their employees. And that's all, really.
Still, executives quickly see the role of mentoring in creating a more productive workforce, lowering healthcare premiums and, generally, contributing to economic development. When you consider that each child lost to the criminal justice system costs more that $1 million to community taxpayers, the economics are clear.
In fact, schools in Sioux City, one of the first towns we recruited in, are scrambling to catch up with community enthusiasm; there are three adult mentors available for each child currently identified as needing one.
This enthusiasm -- and the resulting mentoring relationships that take place -- will improve the health of our communities. Kids who regularly meet with mentors are 46% less likely to begin using drugs, 27% less likely to begin using alcohol, 52% less likely to skip school and 33% less likely to hit someone.
Those numbers translate directly to a return on time investment for employers. I'm talking about enhanced productivity by reducing time off due to family problems; it directly affects medical claims, lowering healthcare costs.
So, while these are long-term approaches with long-term benefits, I can tell you as a mentor of an at-risk child, I have seen the ways mentoring enhances all aspects of the community.
In other words, community initiatives are not just the right thing to do; they measurably improve health and impact healthcare costs.
Barry Spear is vice president of system development in the Iowa Health System.