3 rival hospitals team up to face a common enemy: childhood asthma

Project 'has been groundbreaking,' hospital partner says

When three Iowa hospitals noticed a surge in ED visits for pediatric asthma, they combined their data and expertise to tackle a major source of the problem: poor housing conditions in their communities.

Through the Healthy Homes Des Moines program, Mercy Medical Center, Broadlawns Medical Center, and UnityPoint Health-Des Moines are working alongside other community partners to help 150 families improve their housing situations over about two years.

One of 150 families: The Gilberts

Brad and Erin Gilbert were among the first residents helped by the program, Gunnar Olsen reports for dsm Magazine.

Shortly after the Gilberts moved into a new home, their son Lucas began suffering asthmatic symptoms such as a fever and bad cough. He was ultimately hospitalized three times over six months.

"Sometimes you feel like you're churning," Stacey Milani, Lucas's pediatrician, tells the magazine, "because there's only so much you can do to treat the symptoms unless there's an underlying cause you can fix."

The Gilberts' medical bills for Lucas's care reached about $85,000 before they signed up for a home health assessment from Healthy Homes Des Moines.

When Carolyn Schaefer, a nurse with the Polk County Health Department, visited the Gilberts' home, she spotted several likely triggers for asthma, including a bathroom without ventilation, a broken-down roof, and dog hair.

Schaefer prescribed several home repairs—including a new roof and gutters, new kitchen and bathroom fans, and allergen-free pillows—and health education for the Gilberts, all at no cost to the family. Healthy Homes Des Moines spent $8,400 on the repairs—a fraction of what the Gilberts had already incurred in medical costs.

A unique collaboration

Healthy Homes Des Moines is one of 18 projects funded by the BUILD Health Challenge, a national award program funded by The Advisory Board Company, the de Beaumont FoundationThe Kresge Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Colorado Health Foundation.

The challenge aims to foster and expand partnerships among health systems, community-based organizations, local health departments, and other organizations to identify and address the complex, upstream problems that influence the health of local residents.

For Mercy, Broadlawns, and UnityPoint-Des Moines, the initiative started with sharing data to test their hypothesis that children in low-income neighborhoods were more likely to have asthma. Their local partners found that the rate of asthma in Greater Des Moines' poorest ZIP codes was twice the state average.

"I call it the 'duh' and the 'aha,'" says Suzanne Mineck, president of the Mid-Iowa Health Foundation, one of the project's 11 community partners. That data, she tells dsm Magazine, provided Healthy Homes Des Moines with the evidence it needed to back its model and inform its interventions.

The project members hope to eventually show that the interventions improved local children's health, but they say the collaboration between the community stakeholders carries even greater promise.

"Our community needs and deserves more collaboration among all providers, including our health systems," Mercy Medical Center-Des Moines President Bob Ritz tells the magazine. "It's simply the right thing to do."

The de Beaumont Foundation's Brian Castrucci adds, "A success for BUILD is not the current project. It's that once the grant has ended, this coalition stays together and takes on the next issue."

So far, it looks like BUILD is pushing hospitals in the right direction, says Chris McCarthy, a community health project manager with UnityPoint Health-Des Moines. "I've been in this field for a very long time, and the BUILD Health Challenge grant was like a breath of fresh air," he says.

"This was the first [initiative] that really challenged hospitals to say, 'All right, you need to get upstream on this stuff,'" McCarthy adds. "I think it's kind of a groundbreaking grant process that's going on right now."

Learn about the BUILD Health Challenge


BUILD Health is creating and expanding meaningful partnerships among health systems, community-based organizations, local health departments, and other organizations. The goal? To identify and address the complex, upstream problems that influence the overall health of local residents.

Watch our video to hear from several funded communities about their efforts to give everyone a chance to live a healthy life.


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