FirstHealth targets healthy living

By Todd Cohen

PINEHURST, N.C. — The mortality rates for heart disease, cancer and diabetes in Moore, Montgomery, Hoke and Richmond counties combined exceed those in North Carolina overall.

In Richmond County alone, the heart-disease mortality rate is nearly 50 percent above the state rate, and the diabetes mortality rates in Hoke, Montgomery and Richmond counties all exceed the state rate by 50 percent.

Now, aiming to prevent chronic disease by encouraging people to take better care of themselves, FirstHealth of the Carolinas in Pinehurst is launching a seven-year program that expects to reach 1,100 people a year in the four counties.

Funded with a $1.4 million grant from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust in Winston-Salem, the new “Healthy Living in the Mid-Carolinas” program will target adults age 18 and older, encouraging them to change their behavior by increasing their physical activity, eating healthy food every day, and quitting smoking and other tobacco use.

The program builds on a four-year pilot program FirstHealth is just completing that has focused on getting adults age 50 and older to increase their physical activity.

In that program, one of several pilot efforts throughout the United States funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton, N.J., over 800 people in the same four counties participated in a 12-week program to change their lifestyle, says Barbara Bennett, administrative director of community health services at FirstHealth.

That program consisted of classes offered throughout the four counties in churches, community health centers, senior centers and other locations.

“We were looking for underserved populations,” Bennett says.

The classes were designed to help participants look at their level of physical activity, identify barriers keeping them from being more active, and help reduce the barriers and change their behavior.

Changes ranged from getting up from a chair and walking around a room during television commercials, or walking to the mailbox rather than riding a golf cart, to running for the first time in a 5K event, Bennett says.

Working with senior centers, local health departments, churches, coalitions and community-based “Healthy North Carolinian” groups in each county, and nonprofit health clinics that serve underserved clients, the new program will offer separate classes designed to help people increase their daily physical activity, eat healthy foods every day, and stop smoking.

In addition to the program on physical activity it has offered with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, FirstHealth also offered a tobacco-cessation program funded over four years through 2004 by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Mich., and the American Legacy Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Among participants in the tobacco-cessation program, 32 percent stopped using tobacco, compared to an average “quit rate” of 20 percent to 25 percent nationally for similar programs, Bennett says.

The new program reflects FirstHealth’s long-term strategy of “working with the communities we serve to have quality health care and to improve the overall health of those communities,” she says.

John Frank, director of the health-care division for the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, says the new program reflects a key priority of the trust to promote good health by providing preventive health services, particularly those that can prevent chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and stroke.

Community-based education, he says, is critical to helping “people understand they have to start taking care of themselves better.”

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