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Resident: The patient is a 45 year old black male…

Me (interrupting): I really don’t like identifying people by the color of their skin. What else do you know about him?

Resident: The patient is a 45 year old automobile mechanic who is here for a recheck of his diabetes…

Me (interrupting): Who lives where?

Resident: I don’t know, Mobile. Can I please just finish?

Me: Not until you tell me where he lives and why it’s important

Resident (whispering to another resident): is there another attending I can talk to?

Our current mayor, when he was elected, established an outcome for his “mayorship.” He stated, unequivocally, that he wanted Mobile Alabama to be the safest, most business and family friendly city in America by 2020. Well, OK, in my objective writing classes we were taught to focus on SMART objectives. That is, they had to be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time oriented. For example: We want to to be the most family friendly city based on the “family friendly poll” that is administered by the governor’s office twice a year and includes a scientific sample families in Mobile, Huntsville. Montgomery, and Birmingham. Yeah, forgot that step, I’m afraid.

What should it mean to be the most “family friendly” city in Alabama? Mobile is a geographically large city. Bordered by a river on one side, the city stretches 12 miles in one direction and almost 10 miles in another. Does “family friendly” mean parks? We got some, but not a lot. Does it mean churches? We got a lot of those. I bet it is neither one of those. I would bet, if you ask people, they want it to mean a good life for their children. I bet people would say “I want my kids to be happy, healthy, and successful.” How are we doing with that?

Turns out, the federal government keeps statistics on the “healthy” part at the neighborhood level. You can use a tool (such as this) to find out if you live in a healthy neighborhood or an unhealthy one. If you live in an unhealthy one not only are you doomed to a likely premature death but so are your children, In Alabama the healthiest neighborhood provided it’s denizens with a life expectancy of 88 years (an affluent suburb of Birmingham) to 63 years (an area of Montgomery that Martin Luther King marched through 50 years ago). Mobile’s neighborhoods range from a high of 81 to a low of 63.

The neighborhood with the lowest life expectancy in Mobile is not that far from my house. I treat several patients who live there. What sets the neighborhood apart? The people are poor. They work, just not at affluent jobs. One in four are uninsured. One in five report poor mental health and/or poor physical health. A baby born in this neighborhood can only expect to live to 65. A baby born in the mayor’s neighborhood? 82.

How can the mayor improve the health of this neighborhood? There are some simple fixes that could happen tomorrow. An effective bus route through the neighborhood, for example. A find a way to subsidize a source of fresh vegetables and fruits that is less than two miles away. Offer community support services at the neighborhood elementary school.

I believe that family friendly means that our children, who have not yet made any choices, have an equal chance at success. By that metric we have a ways to go by 2020/

 

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Today, Mobile has set its sights beyond historic racial inequality, social inequity, and environmental disasters. Residents, local government, and community-based organizations are forging a consensus on what Mobile’s future should look like, from building an economically strong downtown to providing more easily accessible options for physical activity. Increasingly, community engagement and cross-sectoral partnerships are having a visible impact.

RWJF Culture of Health Sentinel Community Snapshot Mobile Al November 2016

I have to admit when I saw this I was a little taken aback. Tied up with the implementation of a new Electronic Health Record and planning a move to a new space, I figured I must have missed an e-mail or something. Mobile was one of 30 cities chosen by the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation from around the country. They were going to watch us as we developed “a culture of health.” I thought to myself “this is great” and “wow, what a big job.” I only hope that someone has been put in charge that is up to the task.

Because, as it turns out, a “culture of health” doesn’t just mean that we have good doctors and hospitals:

Think of social determinants as the root-causes of health and disease.

Imagine a bucket full of health. This bucket has a hole in the bottom and the health is dripping out (disease). We can mop up the floor below every hour, maybe even squeeze some of the health back into the bucket from the mop. But eventually, the health will be lost because we are not addressing the root of the problem. Instead, we can look for ways to prevent the hole and stop the leak from occurring.

And per the report we have a ways to go:

  • The median household income in Mobile is $38,644 per year, compared with $43,511 for Alabama and $53,482 for the United States (Figure 1).3 Inequality between the city’s black and white residents is striking, with black residents earning about half the median income of white ones. If you are poor you cannot afford good food, educational activities, or safe housing. These all are associated with poor health outcomes.
  • While more likely to have some college education or an associate’s degree in 2014 than they were in 2010 (Figure 2), the percentage of black residents who had a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2014 declined from 2010, despite increases in higher education among white residents. Educational attainment is always associated with better health outcomes. 
  • Teen pregnancy rates in Mobile County are 57 per 1,000 for women aged 13 to 19, compared with 47 per 1,000 in Alabama and 20 per 1,000 in the United States. Teen pregnancy is associated with a lack of knowledge regarding contraception and a lack of access to effective long acting contraceptive methods.
  • The county’s mortality outcomes are higher than the national average for preventable noncommunicable diseases, such as heart diseases, cancer, and diabetes. This reflects limited physical activity, limited opportunities for physical activity, and a very high level of obesity.
  • The city has an uninsured rate of 17%, which is more than 2% higher than the national average.

The report is very complementary of the Mayor’s “One Mobile” initiative and the Three Mile Creek park development.

Unfortunately, the community piece that was cited as most important in transforming our community was “Live Better Mobile.” From the press conference in 2012:

A “Live Better Mobile” program was unveiled today during a news conference. It’s aimed at creating public awareness focusing on three efforts – achieve healthy weights, prevent teen pregnancy, and quit tobacco.

The focus for the 37 community partners participating in the program is on prevention, nutrition and exercise.

“If we’re going to have a significant impact on health and well-being of our citizens, it’s going to take a community effort,” Dr. Bert Eichold of the Mobile County Health Department, said.

The group’s website is now dead. Their FaceBook page hasn’t been updated in a year.

So, Mobile, RWJF and the country are watching us. For the next five years they will be following the health of Mobilians. Are we up to the scrutiny? From the comments:

Talk from the fat cats is cheap. Want to encourage people in Mobile to Exercise? Give them a place to get out and exercise. Spend $70,000 on a weekly Ciclovia event. Pave that Rails-2-Trails from Prichard to Citronelle. Spend a money to construct Exercise Trails instead of spending money constructing Airbus Roads which don’t even have bicycle lanes.

 I just hope someone is in charge…

 

I have a neighbor who is riding his bike from Mobile Alabama to Springfield Missouri to call attention to the need for better mental illness care. They happen to have a son who suffers from mental illness and thus (as many of us do) got involved because of their own son and then become involved with an organization that has a much larger purpose. Not only is D. G. riding his bike across country but his wife, Connie, is an officer in the local chapter of NAMI. Part of D.G.’s reason for taking this on, he says, is that

Even if we don’t raise money, if I can change the attitude of just one person relative to mental illness, it’s worth it. We talk about every other disease but we won’t talk about mental illness. There’s just such a terrible stigma associated with it.

Mental illness has been stigmatized since Biblical times. with Descartes being the most recent scapegoat. Part of the stigma was, I suspect, due to the nature of the affliction. Unlike pneumonia with its fever and coughing, those afflicted with mental illness have no outward manifestation, so the common belief seems to be that if they would only try hard enough, they could control their behaviors. In modern times we have devised treatments but the situation has not improved as much as we would hope. Some people don’t respond to the medications. Others may respond partially but feel so fuzzy headed that they want to stop the medication. Others respond so well that they feel normal, so figure they are cured and quit taking the medication for that reason. All in all, not a good illness to have and very difficult to treat, but an illness just like many other chronic illnesses. Because of the need to keep people taking medicine that makes them feel bad even when they are feeling better, mental health professionals developed “Assertive Community Treatment” options that include (from Wikipedia)

  • a clear focus on those participants (clients) who require the most help from the service delivery system;
  • an explicit mission to promote the participants’ independence, rehabilitation, and recovery, and in so doing to prevent homelessness and unnecessary hospitalization;
  • an emphasis on home visits and other in vivo (out-of-the-office) interventions, eliminating the need to transfer learned behaviors from an artificial rehabilitation or treatment setting to the “real world”;
  • a participant-to-staff ratio that is low enough to allow the ACT “core services team” to perform virtually all of the necessary rehabilitation, treatment, and community support tasks themselves in a coordinated and efficient manner—unlike traditional case managers, who broker or “farm out” most of the work to other professionals;
  • a “total team approach” in which all of the staff work with all of the participants, under the supervision of a qualified mental health professional who serves as the team’s leader;
  • an interdisciplinary assessment and service planning process that typically involves a psychiatrist and one or more nurses, occupational therapists, social workers, substance abuse specialists, vocational rehabilitation specialists, and certified peer specialists (individuals who have had personal, successful experience with the recovery process);
  • a willingness on the part of the team to take ultimate professional responsibility for the participants’ well-being in all areas of community functioning, including most especially the “nitty-gritty” aspects of everyday life;
  • a conscious effort to help people avoid crisis situations in the first place or, if that proves impossible, to intervene at any time of the day or night to keep crises from turning into unnecessary hospitalizations; and
  • a promise to work with people on a time-unlimited basis, as long as they demonstrate a continuing need for this highly intensive and integrated form of professional help.

The goal is to maintain the client’s ability to function in society, despite a high cost and potential loss of freedom. If done right, it is expensive. Unfortunately, it is often easier to allow people with mental illness to wander about with no access to care and walk on the other side of the street as we seem to do commonly here in Alabama.

As we fight to destigmatize mental illness and offer appropriate treatment to those who have it, society seems to be moving to stigmatize other folks with certain types of chronic illness. The most recent example is that of diabetes mellitus. I went to a presentation about health coaching at the National Rural Health Association meeting. This presentation discussed a model of care that, although less intensive, offers many elements of Assertive Community Treatment. The goal of the therapy is to move folks with diabetes to a disease-free  state by working with them to encourage lifestyle changes, medication compliance, and disease self-management. It is surprising how rapidly the conversation turns to “disincentives” such as more money in insurance premiums, encouraging “self control” through shame and stigmatization, and “if only they would stay out of McDonald’s.”

As we come to understand how much of our healthcare costs can be reduced through positive lifestyle modifications, I hope that we can celebrate the triumph of modern medicine over the frailty of the human condition. Instead we seem to be moving to punishing those who are less than perfect. A trend I will continue to fight.

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