Street-level health care

April 2, 2012
| By Pete Daly |
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Businesses like GE Aviation and Steelcase know plenty about getting high-tech aircraft off the ground or creating an effective office environment. But some of their strength and expertise also has been put to work on the street level to help nonprofit organizations deliver better health care to the most disadvantaged populations.

The GE Foundation, a philanthropic organization of General Electric Co., has launched Developing Health Grand Rapids, a combined grant and volunteer program that is providing cash and hands-on help for three Cherry Street Health Services facilities in Grand Rapids. It entails the award of $750,000, along with visits by GE Aviation employees to help Cherry Street improve the way it works.

"Some might ask, 'So what do people in aviation know about health care?'" said Chris Shea, CEO of Cherry Street Health Services.

His answer is that "there are similarities in process and in the development of processes, whether it's a manufacturing endeavor or service industry or health care." Shea added that GE Aviation has "a great deal of experience in process design."

The grant, which is part of a $50 million national GE Foundation initiative called Developing Health, will support three Cherry Street centers: Heart of the City, Cherry Street and Westside Health. The clinics provide medical, dental, vision and behavioral health care to those in need, regardless of their income or insurance status.

According to Tom Boland, a GE Aviation executive at the facility at 3290 Patterson Ave. SE in Cascade Township, about a dozen employees are involved in the first phase of the hands-on assistance, which is just beginning. He said there will be dozens more involved. "We've committed to a two-year (project)," he said.

The local GE Aviation staff designs and develops electronics systems for aircraft, including the Boeing Dreamliner.

"We're aviation here, and yes, we do a lot of engineering," said Boland, but he said the Cherry Street project is "all about how we can utilize all the skill sets we have here — engineering being one of them. We have finance, sourcing, supply chain, information technology …"

GE employees have an internal expression, "action workouts," and one of their Cherry Street projects will be an action workout to reduce the number of no-shows for medical appointments.

Boland said the no-show rate at Cherry Street facilities averages about 11 or 12 percent, while in the medical industry in general, the no-show average is half that or less.

"We're working to close that gap," said Boland.

Among the general public, appointment reminders sent by U.S. mail are effective, but that is not always the case in the poorest neighborhoods. However, "just about everyone has a phone," noted Boland, so one strategy will be to try using text messages to keep appointment reminders fresh in patients' minds.

Steelcase is another leading corporation in its industry that supports health care clinics in low-income neighborhoods in Greater Grand Rapids.

"Both the foundation and the corporation have a long, long history (of support)," said Kate Pew Wolters, acting president of the Steelcase Foundation.

In particular, Steelcase has provided significant support to both Cherry Street's new Heart of the City clinic and Catherine's Health Center a couple of miles north on Leonard Street.

"The Steelcase Foundation has supported Cherry Street since at least 1993 with funding, mostly for capital and program services," said Wolters. In fact, those grants total more than $600,000, she added, and funding for Catherine's Health Care has exceeded $100,000.

The Steelcase corporation is also in a perfect position to offer another type of direct help to health care organizations: Its Nurture brand of institutional furniture includes tables, casegoods, seating and workstations for medical exam rooms, clinic/hospital waiting rooms and administrative workstations — even new mobile support platforms for laptops and electronic notebooks in use by physicians making their rounds.

Catherine's Health Center has been providing medical care to those in need since 1996. After the closure of the Kent County Health Department's Creston Neighborhood Well-Child Clinic, Saint Mary's Hospital, St. Alphonsus Church and the Creston Neighborhood Association established Catherine's Health Center to provide health care for those who could not find a primary care physician.

In January 2011, the clinic's Opening Doors campaign successfully raised funds for a $1.275 million Gold LEED renovation of the former St. Alphonsus School, tripling the amount of space Catherine's previously had occupied. Once open only a couple of afternoons per week, the clinic now provides doctor and nurse practitioner services four and a half days each week, providing free and low-cost medical services to more than 5,000 patients a year.

And the Steelcase Nurture division donated all the furniture, said Wolters. "It's nice to be a person on low income and go into a very nicely appointed and designed health care facility, which is maybe not what they expect. The foundation and the corporation both believe that supporting people on lower income with their health care is really important," said Wolters.

Cascade Engineering is yet another area corporation that strives to be socially responsible, especially in regard to health care issues involving the least advantaged populations in the Greater Grand Rapids community. Cascade has an employee-staffed contributions committee that targets "areas of health to improve the vitality and quality of life in communities in which Cascade Engineering resides, with an emphasis on children and youth as well as activities with a preventative purpose," said Sharon L. Darby.

Darby, social investment manager at Cascade and also a senior manager in environmental, safety and sustainability, said that over the past five years, Cascade Engineering has provided grants to Cherry Street Health Services, Grand Rapids African American Health Institute, Saint Mary's Health Services, Metropolitan Hospital, American Heart Association, Gilda's Club and Hospice of Michigan.

She added that, in particular, the Cherry Street Health Services clinic — now the newly built and renamed Heart of the City Health Center — provided Cascade Engineering with an opportunity to reach out to a facility that services the heart of Grand Rapids, repeatedly helping those "who have little means of paying for services."

"The funding was directed toward development of pediatric care improvements," said Darby. "In addition, the Michigan Department of Community Health Medicaid program matched nearly $3 for every $1 contributed."

Heart of the City Health Center is testimony to the extent of support by business for street-level health care in the underprivileged areas of the city. Its donor recognition list has scores of individuals' names and businesses, including Applied Imaging, Amway, Art Van Furniture, Bank of Holland, Behler Young, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation, Brigade Fire Protection, Colliers International, CQL Inc., Custer Inc., Foremost Insurance, The Gardening Angel, Godwin Plumbing, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Lacks Enterprises, Lighthouse Group, Meijer, N-K Manufacturing Technologies, Pioneer Construction, Quality Air, Quality Choice Life & Health Insurance Agency, Ritsema Associates, S.A. Morman & Co., Trivalent Group Inc., Varnum LLP and Warner Norcross & Judd.

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