Surgeon general praises Durham health needs mapping

The surgeon general praises the effort to boost preventive care in Durham

Staff WriterMarch 30, 2010 

— An ambitious new initiative trying to analyze Durham's medical needs neighborhood by neighborhood got some heady praise Monday from the nation's top doctor.

U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin called the Durham Health Innovations project "the most organized and most developed" initiative of its kind.

Benjamin was the featured speaker at the Durham Health Summit, an annual gathering of public and private health care providers.

The project is a collaboration between Duke Medicine and local government and community health care groups. Since last year, 10 teams have ventured into neighborhoods throughout Durham to gather data and find ways to bring preventive care to more people.

It is a labor-intensive, expensive venture attempting to map the maladies of an entire city. Once organizers know, for example, where most Durham residents with hypertension live, they can funnel more prevention resources to doctors and health clinics in those neighborhoods.

"Our hope is that you'll pass these people on the street and they'll say, 'Hey, how's your blood pressure?'" said Rob Califf, a Duke cardiologist helping lead the initiative.

The project is funded by the National Institutes of Health and Duke Medicine.

Its largest hurdle won't be selling a healthy lifestyle but in getting people to take the next step, Benjamin said. She compared the Durham project to a new White House initiative combating obesity.

"We know we've gotten the word out that you have to eat right and exercise," she said. "What we haven't gotten is people to actually do those things."

Boring down into neighborhoods may produce a peer-pressure effect in which people reluctant to seek care may do so if their friends and neighbors encourage them to, Benjamin said.

"It's going to be very tough," Benjamin said. "But it works when you get everyone involved. It really is the only way to get people to take ownership of their own health."

The Durham initiative dovetails with the health care reform package approved by Congress last week because the federal legislation preaches prevention, Benjamin said.

But in practice, the reform act won't have much impact on the project, said Califf, the Duke doctor.

A place for records

"There's nothing in the bill that provides the type of coherent organization we're talking about," he said.

In Durham, health officials have spent a year analyzing data from local hospitals, doctors and public governments. One goal is to create a single repository for patient medical records that will be easy for doctors, dentists, pharmacists, hospitals, community clinics and others to access.

Another is to use information collected to help medical providers target their marketing to the needs of specific populations.

"Should Duke Medicine be advertising its great surgeries in Durham?" he asked. "Or should it be talking about treating hypertension?"

eric.ferreri@newsobserver.com or 919-932-2008

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