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Healthcare Comes to the Farm

Cheryl Clark, for HealthLeaders Media, April 15, 2009

At one focus group meeting to address the problem, one farm woman spoke up. "If you want to see our husbands, you're going to need to come to the farms," Strebel recalled. She said that the initiative does not just target men, but in reality, they're the ones that need it most. Women are just more comfortable with the idea of getting healthcare.

Many farmers had limited health insurance with no coverage for preventive care, added Strebel. In these lean times, she said, it the expense is seen by many farmers as unnecessary.

Strebel said she probably wouldn't get the trust she needs except for how she enters their lives. "I rode out to their homes with the milkman and the veterinarian, and went into the bank to meet them," she said. She became active in Future Farmers of America events such as picnics, and quietly explained the program to many wives she met.

"Can you come out to see my husband? I can't get him to come in to see a doctor," one woman asked Strebel.

When inside the home, Strebel tries to organize a family discussion around the kitchen table. She listens to their questions and draws blood for lipid and blood sugar tests, takes blood pressure, assesses body mass index and body fat, conducts pulmonary function, hearing and skin cancer screenings. She also advises on tetanus shots and views the farm's surroundings.

What she helped launch five years ago has helped deliver needed health interventions to about 300 families, or 670 individuals a year, she said.

The project is, by big city standards, extremely cheap.

The effort has been funded with about $120,000 a year for each of the past five years. Two federal grants provided a total of $192,000, but the rest came from ThedaCare and the Shawano Medical Center, a 25-bed critical access hospital in Shawano.

Strebel advises other community hospitals to make sure that the effort starts with the community.

Strebel said that once alerted that they may have a medical problem, "the first thing they say is 'Oh my gosh. What can I do about this? I don't have time to be sick.'"

And many have been successful following advice to lose weight and eat a better diet.

Ron Hillmann, chairman of the Rural Health Initiative said the program has exceeded all expectations. "It's the old concept of the typical country doctor going out to the patient," he said. "That's what has worked for us, and gained the confidence of the people. Rhonda has done that."

He added that farm women say "I got my husband to listen to her, and he hasn't listened to anyone in more than 20 years."

Hillmann, who also is the president of the Mid-County Cooperative that supplies feed and fuel for the farmers, said that in his years of working in the community, "we tried five other initiatives and every one has failed.

He said the program has also brought patients in to the area medical centers. "There's no question that the health of community is far better today because of this program," he said.


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Cheryl Clark is senior quality editor and California correspondent for HealthLeaders Media. She is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.
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