System hopes grant will prevent lifestyle-related illness downstream
Rates of Type 2 diabetes are rising among the young. Research suggests that for the first time in U.S. history, children will live shorter life spans than their parents. One out of three kids is now considered overweight or obese.
In an effort to reverse the tide of gloom about the future health of American children, the Sisters of Mercy Health System is committing $5 million over the next five years for health education in schools in Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas.
Mercy will pay the licensing fees for schools in those four states to use HealthTeacher, a health literacy program that provides online lesson plans for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, said Lynn Britton, Mercy president and chief executive. Mercy also will pay for health professionals who will train teachers how to use the program's online materials and resources.
Already, more than 100 schools representing 370,000 students have signed up for the program, Britton said, and the goal is to enroll a million students. Both public and private schools are invited to join.
Mercy decided to make the commitment after spending the last year holding roundtable sessions in 28 communities across its four-state service area.
"In every single one, all 28 communities, one of the key themes or concerns was health lifestyles for children," Britton said. "People said, 'Help us with our children.'"
Mercy chose HealthTeacher because of its track record in use for more than a decade in some of the nation's largest school districts. Aligned with the National Health Education Standards, its curriculum focuses on health, nutrition, mental health, injury prevention, as well as on the dangers of tobacco, alcohol and drug use.
With the recession putting severe strain on school districts' budgets, health education is often the first class to be cut. One of the advantages of HealthTeacher is that its lesson plans cross-align with other subjects, so it can be used by other educators, such as math, science or language arts teachers, said Britton.
"It's really something that can easily be used by any teacher in a school system," he said.
Mercy's commitment to improving children's health is a classic example of what the Sisters of Mercy have done since the 1850s, said Britton. In the past, "they went to a community and they listened. They didn't go with some predetermined agenda," he said.
"And that's what we're doing this time," he added. "We heard a need for education, and we found it to be a perfect marriage" of health system and schools.
One need only look at cigarettes for proof that education can change public attitudes and behavior surrounding health issues, said Dr. Robert Bergamini, a pediatric oncologist at St. John's Mercy Children's Hospital in suburban St. Louis. Mercy Children's is part of St. John's Mercy Medical Center, which is a member of the Mercy system.
In speaking to St. Louis-area students about the danger of high-risk behaviors, Bergamini is reassured that knowledge can spur positive change.
"When you provide children and teenagers with accurate information, many of them don't need more than that," Bergamini said. "That's enough for them to make a good decision."
Bergamini said he checked with 11 colleagues from around the country about HealthTeacher, and they all gave "spectacular reviews" on the program.
He's also reviewed more than 220 of HealthTeacher's 330 lesson plans and found them to be medically "rock solid." That's important, he said, because "there's so much mythology out there, so much misinformation" among youth about health issues.
"I guess the most important thing is, we have to try something," said Bergamini. "This goes back to good solid facts, presented in an easy-to-understand way. And people respond to facts."
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