Providing quality care to the region’s most vulnerable populations
By Kara Isham | Photos courtesy of WelcomeHealth
For people with underlying health conditions such as diabetes, COVID-19 can lead to serious complications. That means prevention – controlling blood sugar through diet, exercise, monitoring and medication – is more important than ever.
With diabetes still ranking among the most serious health issues facing Americans, WelcomeHealth, the only free medical clinic in Northwest Arkansas, recognizes the importance of properly diagnosing and treating the condition as well as educating patients on how they can manage their symptoms.
WelcomeHealth primarily offers care to uninsured and underinsured individuals living in the region. Executive Director Monika Fischer-Massie says many of the clinic’s patients come in for help with chronic health issues, with roughly a quarter of its patients battling type II diabetes.
As part of their treatment, patients are seen every two to six months, depending on severity of disease. Along with treatment, WelcomeHealth also provides free or reduced price medications such as insulin.
“Studies suggest higher rates of diabetes among individuals living in poverty compared to those with higher incomes,” Fischer-Massie says. “A lot of people have trouble controlling blood sugar levels because of food choices and lack of physical activities. So diet, lifestyle and stress are key factors.”
WelcomeHealth recently received a grant from Direct Relief, with help from Baxter International Foundation, to further its diabetes care for patients. The funding is centered on an initiative that incorporates nutrition education in clinical care practices to improve health outcomes for patients. The grant helps fund diagnosis, tests, medication and education during the visit, along with other treatment costs for patients with diabetes.
Fischer-Massie says the clinic has also found a way to provide continuing education to help patients better manage their disease outside of the clinic.
Prior to the pandemic, WelcomeHealth participated in a program through the University of Arkansas in which graduate students and senior level students would visit the clinic to offer nutrition education for diabetes patients. With the arrival of COVID-19, that program had to be put on hold.
In addition to showing an educational video provided by the university in the clinic’s main lobby, WelcomeHealth also encourages patients to access taped virtual sessions from the UA’s DFEND program. The program focuses on diet, food, exercise and nutrition during social distancing and offers tips for saving money on groceries, exercising during the pandemic, healthy recipes and more. Patients are able to access these weekly video sessions from the comfort and safety of their home.
“Our goal for this is to give patients access to these lessons from their home computer or cell phone so they can watch whenever it’s convenient for them,” says Fischer-Massie. “This is a great program because it serves as an open forum where people can ask questions about diet and exercise. And it can be done in a faceless manner where patients are less afraid to ask questions.”
WelcomeHealth providers and volunteers also follow up with patients to determine how well they are receiving the information from DFEND sessions. Providers hope that after patients watch the sessions, it will encourage them to follow nutritional guidelines or make changes to their lifestyle that ultimately lower blood glucose levels and reduce the risk of complications from diabetes.
Fischer-Massie also says the pandemic has kept some people from seeking medical care early on, or from receiving follow-up treatments. She says patients can be assured that WelcomeHealth is following all regulations and guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and she emphasizes the importance of receiving timely medical care. For those who still feel uncomfortable visiting the clinic, WelcomeHealth also offers telemedicine so individuals can meet with medical staff via computer or phone.
Founded in 1989, WelcomeHealth is a nonprofit clinic that provides healthcare to those throughout the area who are uninsured or underinsured. Qualifying patients have a household income of no more than 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
The clinic currently operates out of its 10,000-square-foot facility in Fayetteville with two full-time and six part-time staff members, 50 professional volunteers and 25 lay volunteers. The clinic receives some funds from the state and city, but otherwise operates on donations from foundations, corporations, civic clubs, churches and individuals.
“Unfortunately, the clinic has had to downsize some of its services, including its restorative dental program, due to limited funding and the clinic’s major fundraisers being canceled this year due to the pandemic,” says Fischer-Massie. In 2019, WelcomeHealth provided 25,000 free medical and dental services to 2,600 patients.
Fischer-Massie says the clinic is looking for additional ways to raise funds to reinstate and sustain its full dental program. In the meantime, the community can rest assured that WelcomeHealth will continue to be a lifeline for those in need.
To learn more about WelcomeHealth, visit www.welcomehealthnwa.org.