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WISEWOMAN Wins Outstanding Rural Health Award

SEARHC’s program for women’s health is one to model


For its work improving the heart health of women in its region, the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium(SEARHC) WISEWOMAN Program received the Alaska Rural Health Award for Outstanding Rural Health Program during an April 25 luncheon at the Alaska Rural Health Conference in Anchorage.

The Outstanding Rural Health Program award “recognizes a community, regional or statewide program involving one or more health professionals or entities that promotes or facilitates the development of rural health delivery systems,” according to the Alaska Rural Health Conference Steering Committee, which presents the awards. “Factors considered include coordination of services, networking, collaboration, innovation in development and implementation and lasting impact of the program on populations served.”

The committee is made up of representatives from the sponsors of the biennial conference: Alaska Center for Rural Health; Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, DPH/HPSD; Alaska eHealth Network; Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority; Alaska Native Health Board; Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium; Alaska Primary Care Association; Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association; the Denali Commission; and the University of Alaska, Health Programs Development.

“The SEARHC WISEWOMAN Program is grateful to be recognized by the Alaska Rural Health Conference as an Outstanding Rural Health Program,” said Litia Garrison, SEARHC Women’s Health Program Manager, upon accepting the award. “Since 2000, our WISEWOMAN Program has helped women learn more about preventing heart disease and stroke, as well as supporting them to eat healthier, be more active and quit using tobacco. This award reflects the dedicated staff efforts, local partnerships and organizational support from SEARHC that led to the WISEWOMAN Program’s successes. We accept this award in honor of the many women of Southeast Alaska who have made positive, hearthealthy changes in their lives, improving their health along with the health of their families and communities.” Marilyn Kasmar, APCA executive director, praised SEARHC for winning the award.

“SEARHC has long been a member of the Alaska Primary Care Association, and the APCA has been proud to support SEARHC’s efforts in improving access to primary care to beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries in the communities SEARHC serves,” Kasmar said. “We are very pleased to hear about this award as SEARHC’s demonstrated commitment to improving the health outcomes of the people of Southeast is legend.”

Reaching Out to Women

The SEARHC WISEWOMAN Program, or Yaa Kudzigéiyi Shaawát, is one of 21 WISEWOMAN (Well-Integrated Screening and Evaluation for Women Across the Nation) programs around the country sponsored by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Through these 21 programs (two of which are in Alaska), WISEWOMAN provides screening for heart disease and stroke risk factors and lifestyle interventions for many low-income, uninsured, or under-insured women.

The SEARHC program begins reaching out to women starting at age 30, and works with local and statewide partners to serve Alaska Native/American Indian and non-Native women in 16 Southeast Alaska communities. The program reaches out to women in Haines, Klukwan, Juneau, Douglas, Sitka, Kake, Angoon, Hoonah, Pelican, Yakutat, Klawock, Craig, Thorne Bay, Hydaburg, Kasaan, and Wrangell, with staff at four SEARHC clinic locations: Haines, Juneau, Sitka and Klawock. Women in other communities are served by WISEWOMAN staff or other SEARHC staff, or by phone.

“WISEWOMAN Women’s Health Program staff work to support comprehensive, value-added women’s health care services, even though the grant programs only cover the cost of certain annual health screening services and follow up,” Garrison says. “This is especially important for women who have inadequate or no resources for these preventive care services. During certain times of the year, staff travel out to SEARHC clinic communities to provide face to face, individualized healthy lifestyle counseling. They also work to follow up with women who have outstanding health care needs, particularly those with abnormal screening results.” The program provides screening for blood pressure, glucose, cholesterol and other lipids testing, as well as the opportunity to receive individualized healthy lifestyle counseling. The SEARHC WISEWOMAN Women’s Health Program also provides support for breast and cervical cancer screening as part of a comprehensive approach to women’s health. More information about the SEARHC WISEWOMAN Program is available online at searhc.org/womenshealth. One participant described the WISEWOMAN program as a “lighthouse” or “beacon of health” that helps her stay on track with her health goals while she also balances the family, work and community roles that are her priorities.

Partnerships and Leadership Support

Local partnerships have contributed to WISEWOMAN’s success. For example, the SEARHC WISEWOMAN Program has entered into a unique partnership with the State of Alaska’s Breast and Cervical Health Check (BCHC) Program, Alaska Island Community Services Clinic, and Wrangell Medical Center, to provide cardiovascular screening services and healthy lifestyle support to women in Wrangell who access their women’s health screening services via BCHC. This has expanded the program’s depth and breadth.

The SEARHC WISEWOMAN Program also regularly partners with community organizations to provide health events such as community “walks” for heart health; workshops on safe canning and food preservation, healthy eating; and community garden efforts, among others.

Leadership support is another important factor in making the program a success. SEARHC leadership has provided ongoing support for the WISEWOMAN Program’s activities, including support for collecting the required CDC program evaluation data, and inclusion of primary prevention, screening and early detection goals in the SEARHC Strategic Plan. Garrison says that without SEARHC’s organizational support, the program would not have been able to start and continuously improve the work they do, including the development of recognized innovations that have been used to expand the program’s activities and reach.


In 2007, SEARHC was awarded a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration, Maternal and Child Health Bureau to develop, implement and evaluate an innovative intervention called “WISE At Every Size (WAES).” Designed to be delivered within the framework of the WISEWOMAN Program, the overall purpose of SEARHC’s WISE at Every Size was to provide support to women to maintain a healthy weight, increase fitness and reduce other risks of chronic disease. Health At Every Size and Motivational Interviewing approaches were the foundation for this intervention project.

WAES developed a curriculum of classes and gatherings that focused on improving fitness, nutrition, social support, self-esteem and body image. A WAES Instructor network, comprised of SEARHC staff and other community partners, was trained to deliver the WAES curriculum via an innovative distance learning vehicle: a video conferencing network that links the isolated communities of Southeast Alaska. More than 200 “WISEWOMEN” took part in the WAES intervention over the three years that the program was funded externally. WAES classes continue today in a number of SEARHC communities.

These innovative implementation methods have worked. Preliminary evaluation data from the WAES intervention have shown improvements in fitness measures, blood pressure and HDL (“good” cholesterol). In 2009, the Indian Health Service recognized the SEARHC WAES Program as a Diabetes Best Practice Program.

As for the number of women the program serves, since July 2008, SEARHC WISEWOMAN has provided or facilitated over 3,500 WISEWOMAN CVD screenings to women in the region. Lasting impacts on the population served show the program is working. The most recent look at heart disease risk factor changes over time (2008) showed improvements in HDL (good cholesterol) and blood pressure, as well as improvements in reported physical activity and nutrition measures. Garrison says they will look at this type of broad evaluation data again in the coming year.

Modeling the Program

Garrison shared some of the ways other health care providers in both rural and urban Alaska can model this awardwinning program.

  • Integrating a patient-centered, healthy lifestyle counseling, clinic-based support system.
  • Using patient education techniques that “meet the woman where she is,” and encouraging small, step-wise changes in healthy behaviors.
  • Acting as a non-judgmental resource for women as their needs and readiness change over time
  • Recognizing your hard-working, family-centered women as “WISE” women and health “champions” in their homes and communities.

As for the most significant aspect of the program, Garrison had this to say: “Heart disease and stroke together are the number one killer of women in Alaska and nationwide. Preventing heart disease and other chronic diseases such as cancer and diabetes requires innovative thinking at many different levels. Increasing awareness of heart disease and providing and facilitating a framework of support for leading healthy lives is WISEWOMAN’s hallmark.”

Source: SEARHC
Compiled by ABM Staff

This article first appeared in the June 2012 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.
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