CWRU social work researcher lends hand in making Cleveland healthier

Health is not only an issue for an individual; it is one for a community. Rob Fischer from the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University has teamed up with Kaiser Permanente’s Community Health Initiative to evaluate its Healthy Eating, Active Living (HEAL) Program in Cleveland’s Ward 1.

HEAL is a national health initiative, launched by Kaiser Permanente with local community support from Lee-Harvard neighborhood organizations, to make it easier for people to make healthy choices, from exercising to eating, through changes in the community.

The program has been cited by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Institute of Medicine as a model initiative, and it aligns with First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” program to combat childhood obesity.

Examples of access to a healthier lifestyle include growing or purchasing locally grown fresh foods, safety measures to encourage students to walk to school, and more bike and walking paths for exercising. It also includes better management of chronic health conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

Providing access to this healthier lifestyle also is a way of improving the neighborhood to emphasize this healthier lifestyle, said Fischer, co-director of the social work school’s Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development and research associate professor.

Kaiser Permanente has established HEAL sites in each of its regions (California, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland-Washington D.C., Ohio and Oregon areas), according to Merle R. Gordon, director of Kaiser-Permanente of Ohio’s Community Benefit office.

“This initiative began about eight years ago in response to the rise in obesity across the country,” said Gordon. Each region has an intervention designed through community input, and all regions focus on impacting policy and built environment around this prevention work.

“Kaiser Permanente is a mission driven organization that exists to improve the health of our members and the communities we serve,” added Gordon. “Part of our work in Ward 1 has resulted in turning vacant lots into community gardens, advocating for public parks to include walking paths with exercise stations, bike lane ‘sharrows’ on some of the main roads, and encouraging businesses within the community to offer healthier options and opportunities.”

Locally, Kaiser already has implemented the program in the southeast Cleveland neighborhood of Lee-Harvard. Fischer and researchers at the Mandel School will conduct a retrospective evaluation to the program’s start in 2006 to track and document changes that promote a healthier lifestyle.

The evaluation will measure how effective the program was in Ward 1 and understand how to improve the program as it is duplicated in other communities, Fischer noted.

Researchers will gather information from 2012 through 2015. Data will be compiled from reports and records, as well as focus groups, and interviews with community residents, leaders, educators and social service agencies.