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Hoops for Hope is a Slam Dunk for Rural Women's Health

Cheryl Clark, for HealthLeaders Media, December 30, 2009

It's been just 60 days since two small hospitals in rural Kansas teamed up to host a successful celebrity basketball game, which raised $40,000 for women's cancer prevention.

But the event was more than just a sold-out game.

The event itself became a vehicle to educate and energize health awareness in an area troubled by the economic recession and poor access to care.

Because of the game, and the money raised, five small towns (total population 2,500) will have mobile digital mammography, in a Winnebago, starting in February. Women will have access to colonoscopies through a program provided by Pratt Regional Medical Center, which is 90 miles away.

So, in the spirit of the end of the year and the holidays, I asked the CEO of one of the hospitals, Benjamin Anderson of 24-bed Ashland Health Center, to dissect why the event worked so well so other rural health officials might try a similar event.

But first let's explain what happened. The idea to put on a celebrity game sprung from the imagination of Joe LaBelle, a 21-year-old dishwasher in the Ashland hospital kitchen, Anderson says.

Through fate, LaBelle happened to share a car ride with Anderson. LaBelle had been attending services for his grandmother, who had just died of breast cancer that was caught too late. And he was fresh with regret, and "what ifs" what if a mammogram had caught his grandmother's lump in time.

Anderson says women delay mammography in their rural areas. "Women are driving an hour to get a mammogram, and many drive 2.5 hours to Wichita for a digital mammogram," he says. Another impediment is the cost, $100 to $150 for a mammogram, plus loss of a day's pay to make the drive, plus costs of gasoline.

"The expense can amount to several hundred dollars. So often, women just don't get them," Anderson explains.

Members of the community started to join in the discussions, which noted that women's health is critically important to the health of entire families.

"Women make up 80% of the healthcare decisions for their families, but when they're managing health not just for themselves, but often both sets of parents and grandparents, mom tends to neglect her own," Anderson says. "So when mom comes down with stage 4 breast cancer, everyone else's health is affected too."

"When we educate and empower women to take responsibility for themselves, they bring along everyone else," Anderson says. "They even persuade men to undergo prostate exams."

Residents in the area formed a group called the WEPAC Alliance (named after the five towns in the area: Wilmore, Englewood, Protection, Ashland, and Coldwater) and just about everyone played an important role.

LaBelle suggested that the region's health providers, Ashland Health Center and 14-bed Comanche County Hospital in nearby Coldwater, team up to think about a basketball event.

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