When University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey’s School of Nursing assistant professor Cindy Sickora began taking the blood pressures of residents at three public housing developments in Newark five years ago, she couldn’t believe how depressed the communities were, and she was impatient for change.
“These residents have value in their lives, and for whatever reason, they’re stuck,” Sickora said. “I knew our sophisticated health care system just doesn’t work for these people. The advisory board of one community kept saying real change was ‘gonna take time,’ and I just kept asking ‘when, when, when?'”
The turning point for the communities came when the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey’s School of Nursing opened the Jordan & Harris Community Health Center last September. Sickora and UMDNJ-University Hospital vice chief of emergency medicine Hosseinali Shahidi then founded a community health workers program with a one-time grant of $135,000 from the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey and $900,000 over three years in funding from the Health Resources and Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The program graduated its first class of 10 residents from the John W. Hyatt Court, Pennington Court, and Millard E. Terrell Homes public housing facilities on Feb. 24. As a direct result of the 12-week training, several hundred of the communities’ 3,000 residents took a greater interest in their health and demonstrated that they could control their diabetes and lower their blood pressure with supervision from the health workers, Sickora said.
“It’s amazing how little people know about their health,” Sickora said. “Many people in these communities have hypertension, but they don’t know the implications and usually end up in the emergency room. This health promotion program is meant to educate residents on what happens with a stroke or hypertension, monitor their blood pressures and get them medications, then make sure they take their medications, to prevent the headache or stroke that causes emergency room visits and long-term hospitalization. It’s a coordination of care, instead of having patients running to the emergency room for everything.”
The minimum cost of one hospitalization for poorly managed hypertension that leads to a stroke is $20,000, and for poorly managed diabetes, it’s $15,000, according to Sickora. She projects that thousands of health care dollars could be saved by monitoring and managing a person’s heath long term, which is the goal of the community health workers program.
According to Sickora, word-of-mouth is the fastest method of communication for housing developments, so once this program takes off, more communities will want to get involved.