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Doctors head into community, teach kids healthy habits

Posted Dec 10 2010 2:42pm

Friday, December 10th, 2010

By Jane Schwabe, MD, guest blogger
Cardiothoracic surgeon, Heartland Health 

Three years ago I helped launch a new effort here in St. Joseph, MO, called the 4th Grade Challenge, and now in addition to the important work I do inside the hospital, I also provide important lessons outside of the hospital walls to improve health habits at an early age.

The 4th Grade Challenge is an innovative partnership between Heartland Health , the St. Joseph School District and our local business community designed to address the increasing problem of childhood obesity. The eight-week program is incorporated into the elementary school PE curriculum. Volunteers including doctors, nurses, health practioners and business leaders work with these children teaching them how to read nutrition labels, how to prepare a healthy meal and what a normal portion size looks like. 

By teaching these students at an impressionable age the importance of nutrition, exercise and making healthy choices such as not smoking, the goal is to instill healthy habits that will stay with them into adulthood. The program is designed to be one that children look forward to and stick to.

Children are given a booklet and are challenged to gain points for certain activities including eating fruit, drinking milk and exercising. They need to get to 40 points by the end of the week to win a prize such as a T-shirt, water bottle, or a calorie counter for fast food restaurants that can help them make good choices.

The school district is monitoring students’ body mass index (BMI). So we will be tracking the impact of the 4th Grade Challenge over time. However, we already know from the children we see that we are making an impact. Students explain the healthy choices they are making and how they are encouraging parents to stop smoking. They are involved and excited about making informed decisions. 

What is most rewarding is that this is fun. This is thinking outside of the box. Heartland Health was generous enough to allow us to do this and it underscores our commitment to the community and children.

To have medical staff working to help people outside of the hospital is so important and valuable. I think there are examples of healthcare education here and there. But across the country we really don’t do this well. We assume people know what they need to know, and then are surprised when we see them in the hospital. We cannot assume that the public knows what they need to when it comes to taking care of their health. An organized effort to get into the community to teach people about diet and exercise is crucial. Educating people will help them become healthier and hopefully can decrease their chances for certain diseases.

Our role as physicians needs to include work in the community, especially as we head into this new healthcare reform era. It is all about being engaged and giving back.

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