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Hospital-based initiative in Willmar, Minn., brings wellness to the masses

Wendy Foley has her blood pressure taken during a biometric screening for participants in Rice Memorial Hospital’s newly launched Healthy Community Partnership wellness screening. Organizers hope to sign up 300 people during the first year of the three-year initiative. Tribune photo by Anne Polta

WILLMAR -- Wendy Foley had some health goals, and she hoped that signing up for Rice Memorial Hospital's Healthy Community Partnership would help her reach them.

"I think we all need to take an active role in our own health," she said while waiting in line at the Lakeland Health Center recently for a blood pressure, weight and cholesterol screening. "The days are behind us that the doctor is in charge of our health."

And yes, she had already set her first goal and a four-week timetable for meeting it.

"Hopefully that goal will be accomplished and I'll pick another one," said Foley, interim executive director of the Southern Minnesota Area Health Education Center.

Rice Hospital launched the wellness initiative this spring in a community-wide effort to engage the public in healthy behaviors that reduce the risk of chronic disease. The three-year project is funded by a $475,000 grant from the George Family Foundation. Thirteen hospitals in Minnesota and Wisconsin were chosen last year for the initiative, which is co-sponsored by Allina Health and the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing.

The real kicker: There's no cost to sign up, be screened and -- wait for it -- have a one-to-one session with a qualified health coach to create a plan to better health.

The biggest surprise to most people is that it's free, said Kelly Tauber, wellness coordinator, and Amber Chevalier, wellness guide.

"The general response has been very, very positive," Tauber said. "People are interested in what we're offering."

The two have been hired to oversee the initiative, whose tagline is "Revive. Rewind. Renew. ReYou."

Call it the vanguard of a shift in how providers and the public think about health.

It's a new role for hospitals, which traditionally have focused on the sick and injured but devoted fewer resources to keeping people well in the first place.

"We want to be seen as a place of wellness, not just a place of sickness," said Lynn Stier, director of the Rice Hospital rehabilitation department.

Hospital officials say it's an opportunity for Rice to take the lead in coordinating community wellness efforts and directing people to the right programs and resources. For those who lack a usual source of care, a group including about one in every five Americans, the program is an entry point to finding a primary care doctor with whom they can form a long-term health partnership.

Data collected through the program may give the local medical community more insight into which lifestyle-related health issues and behaviors are most prevalent in Rice Hospital's service area. Is it obesity? High blood pressure? Knowing the answer could help providers target their own efforts more effectively.

More than this, however, it's an opportunity to engage individuals in long-term, sustainable lifestyle changes on behalf of their health, Tauber and Chevalier said.

"Anybody can benefit from our program," Tauber said. "We work with members in the community as well as employers."

Participants who sign up undergo an initial assessment of key biometric measures that include body mass index, blood glucose, cholesterol, pulse and blood pressure. With the help of a coach, they then set goals to improve those measures through behavior change.

"That's what our whole program is about -- making that lifestyle change," said Chevalier.

An online assessment and self-help tool, the Family Health Manager, is available as well on the Rice Hospital website at

Although its focus is obesity, ReYou also addresses sleep, stress and emotional well-being, which are intertwined with overall health, Chevalier said. "It encompasses the whole well-being of the person, not just diet and exercise."

In the weeks since the program was launched, Tauber and Chevalier have screened dozens of participants. Some younger adults had not had their cholesterol checked in years and were "very surprised" to learn it was elevated, Chevalier said. "They would have had no idea if they hadn't gone through the screening."

Most are opting for individual counseling by a health coach.

It can be overwhelming to know where to start, Tauber said. Coaching helps identify barriers and sort through priorities so that people can be successful, she said. "That's what we're here for -- to help them get over that obstacle."

The goal of the Healthy Community Partnership is to sign up 300 people the first year. Organizers want to sign up 300 more each year for the next two years, plus rescreen as many participants as possible from previous years to measure improvement.

Because a diversity of participants is important, there has been considerable outreach to bring the program to employers, community events and churches. "We want to make sure we get the full demographics," Tauber said. "We're really trying to make it as accessible to the community as possible. ... Three years from now we really hope to have established a strong presence in the community and have our program be the hub for community wellness."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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