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Health commissioner hears concerns from public health workers

WILLMAR -- Because Willmar is large enough to have resources and a solid infrastructure, yet small enough to create partnerships and relationships, its health care system has many positive features.

That was one of the messages Dr. Sanne Magnan, Minnesota health commissioner, heard Friday during a meeting with the Kandiyohi County Public Health Department and two county commissioners.

Magnan said the community needs to use its strengths to find answers to its challenges. "Out of our strengths," she said, "we can handle the challenges."

Because of their "roll up their sleeves to get it done" attitude and ability to have relationships between providers and patients, rural Minnesota may fare better in providing health care than larger organizations and will "help us figure out how to change the health care system."

Health care reforms approved in the last legislative session, said Magnan, will also provide tools to help communities. She cited several examples, like the appropriation of $47 million for public health, as one of those tools. "Very exciting" is how Magnan refers to the 2008 reforms.

When she asked about the "threats" to health care, the public health nurses in the room offered some of their concerns.

When it comes to emergency preparedness, it can be difficult to communicate with the Somali community because of language barriers, which can cause problems during emergencies. Even teaching people, like those who may be in Kenya one day and Willmar a couple days later, about frostbite and the dangers of wearing open-toed sandals can be challenging, said Karen Weimerskirch Ampe.

They've discovered the best way to get information to people who may not understand emergency messages via the radio or newspaper is to work with key Somali leaders in the community, said Cheryl Johnson, the assistant public health administrator.

Magnan said it's not only special populations with limited English skills that have difficulty understanding health information. People living in poverty, and people who are ill, may have reduced "health literacy."

Donna Jorgenson, the correctional health nursing supervisor who oversees care of inmates at the county jail, said an increase in diabetes, hypertension, mental illness and chemical dependency have presented challenges there. She said she'd like to see a program implemented to help inmates stay healthy once they're released.

"They have some high medical needs that don't go away when they walk out of jail," said Jorgenson, who said they currently provide some health care educational programs for the inmates.

Magnan said she was impressed with programs the public health nurses were undertaking at the county jail that didn't just "patch up" inmates and send them on their way.

Responding to concerns about treating illnesses instead of the reason for the illnesses, Magnan said it's important that the "root causes" of illness, like diabetes, are addressed to prevent more treatment and costs further down the road.

She said doctors are now paid more for providing more treatments. A "care coordination" movement is starting that would reward physicians for helping people stay out of the hospital. The end result could be better health care at a lower cost to patients.

Magnan said it will take work and more reform to "turn the ship around" to provide affordable and quality health care to all Minnesotans.

Magnan was in Willmar on Thursday and Friday, touring several health care facilities, including the new dental clinic, to meet with partners with the "Steps to a Healthier" community program and to attend an immunization conference being held here Friday.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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