Rural Health Initiative Expands into Fourth County

Program Seeks Funds to Start Up in Marathon County

Sandi Cihlar of Mosinee is excited to see a dream of hers become reality: the Rural Health Initiative is expanding into Marathon County. The initiative is designed to improve farmers’ health by taking healthcare directly to them by sending a nurse free-of-charge to their farm to provide information, referrals to area services, and listen to health concerns.

“This is an exciting development for Marathon County. We are the largest county in the state and have a huge rural population,” said Cihlar, a retired farmer and a member of the Rural Health Initiative’s steering committee. “This program will make a big difference for many families.”

In 2003, ThedaCare and Shawano Medical Center launched the Rural Health Initiative in Shawano County in partnership with the county extension service, the county public health department, and local schools, with regional agribusiness collaborative and financial partners. In 2012, the initiative expanded into Outagamie and Waupaca counties.

“There has been a lot of interest from people in the county about the program and the board decided to take this step and expand,” said Rhonda Strebel, executive director of the Rural Health Initiative, which was one of five programs to win a 2012 national award from the American Hospital Association that focuses on community health.

Earlier this year, the Rural Health Initiative Board of Directors allocated funds for Strebel to lay the groundwork for the program and find partners to help with funding. The goal is to have a nurse – or even two – on the ground this fall. Cihlar, who is also a farming safety advocate, has been a part of the program since its beginning even though she lived in Marathon County.

The Rural Health Initiative was formed after the ThedaCare-led Community Health Action Team (CHAT) took a deep dive into rural healthcare and heard directly from farmers and their families about their concerns. “From out of that, the initiative just grew,” Strebel said.

The idea to take health care directly to the farmers came from the families themselves, Strebel said. “Farmers tend to be isolated and everyone comes to them – the milk truck, the vet, suppliers and more – so it just made sense to go to them,” she said. “Farmers are busy and many of them are committed to their work that they don’t always think about their own health,”

During the first visit, the nurse will take blood samples and run a quick set of tests that test cholesterol and glucose levels and measure blood pressure and determine body mass index to determine if the person is overweight. “It’s just like the health risk assessment tests many people receive at work as part of their insurance coverage,” Strebel said.

The nurse goes over the results and then talks about basic health issues, such as getting more exercise, safety issues, eating healthfully and more. If the tests reveal any concerns, such as high blood pressure, the nurse helps them connect with a medical provider if they don’t have one they regularly see. “Since the lab work has already been done, it doesn’t need to be redone at the doctor’s office and they won’t incur those costs,” Strebel said

Talking about health issues around the kitchen table is a real difference-maker, Cihlar said. “The nurse comes right into their home and can talk about their needs. Due to the farming lifestyle, it’s not always easy for them to get out and get to a doctor.”

Strebel said Marathon County is breaking new ground for the initiative. “Expanding into Marathon County is very different for us. When we expanded into Waupaca and Outagamie, we had some built-in partners since ThedaCare had a presence in both areas as did some of our ag partners,” Strebel said. “Now, we are starting from scratch, but are excited. There are a lot of opportunities.”

A fund has been created for the initiative in the Community Foundation of North Central Wisconsin.

In 2012, the Marathon County Board of Directors announced a goal to become the healthiest county in the state, said Cihlar, who is also a county board member. “Meeting that goal can’t be done without embracing the rural community,” she said. “We have a lot of interest from people in public health, the University of Wisconsin Extension and the local healthcare providers and have set up our committee. It’s now time for us to get to work and get out there to recruit funding and partners.”

For more information about the Rural Health Initiative, please visit www.wiruralhealth.org.

ThedaCare™ is a community health system consisting of five hospitals: Appleton Medical Center, Theda Clark Medical Center, New London Family Medical Center, Shawano Medical Center, and Riverside Medical Center in Waupaca. ThedaCare also includes ThedaCare Physicians, ThedaCare Behavioral Health, ThedaCare At Work, and ThedaCare at Home. ThedaCare is the largest employer in Northeast Wisconsin with more than 6,175 employees. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.