Chippewa Valley partnership expands reach in providing holistic patient care

A unique partnership between the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Marshfield Clinic and the Family Health Center of Marshfield Inc. is expanding to reach more medical patients in need of area resources to meet their underlying social needs.

The innovative partnership, called the Community Connections Team, is led by Marshfield Clinic providers through Family Health Center Inc. and by UW-Eau Claire faculty, with UW-Eau Claire students volunteering as community health workers. The Community Connections Team has connected more than 300 patients with community resources since its inception in April 2015. The partnership, which began at Marshfield Clinic Eau Claire Center, now also offers its services at the Marshfield Clinic Chippewa Falls Dental Center.

The Community Connections project stemmed from a University Honors Program civic engagement course at UW-Eau Claire. The interdisciplinary program is supported on campus by the Health Careers Center, Institute for Health Sciences, University Honors Program, and the Colleges of Arts and Sciences, Education and Human Sciences, and Nursing and Health Sciences to address the health care needs of low-income residents of the Chippewa Valley.

Social, behavioral, environmental and other factors account for 90 percent of health outcomes, according to the state of Wisconsin's "Healthiest Wisconsin 2020" report. The Community Connections Team is finding ways to create access to social determinants to improve community health.

Rick Behlmer, a UW-Eau Claire senior biology major pursuing a career as a physician, knows his experience volunteering for Community Connections Team will change the way he practices medicine.

"Acknowledging that health disparities exist in communities like ours is the first step; then comes the understanding that all of us can play a part in making sure that these health disparities don't worsen," Behlmer said.

Lynn Stanford, interim executive director for The Community Table, an Eau Claire nonprofit organization that provides daily meals and hospitality 365 days a year to those in need, knows firsthand the importance that social factors — specifically access to healthy food — play in health outcomes. The Community Connections Team often refers patients with limited food access to The Community Table.

"Having access to nutritional food is essential for everyone," Stanford said. "With proper nutrition, children can concentrate in school better, stay awake and improve their grades."

Patients at Marshfield Clinic's Eau Claire Center and Chippewa Falls Dental Center who need assistance with social needs are referred to the Community Connections Team at the Eau Claire Center. Based on a patient's needs, volunteers connect him or her to appropriate community resources.

Patients, whose privacy is protected in this service, have shared their appreciation.

"Without the Community Connections Team volunteers and their determination to connect me to community agencies, it would be incredibly difficult for me to find transportation to my medical appointments," one patient said. "I probably wouldn't get there at all."

Students serving on the Community Connections Team are both providing assistance to patients in need and gaining valuable experience while shaping their perspective on health disparities, said Greg Nycz, director of the Family Health Center of Marshfield Inc.

"Research shows socioeconomic factors impact overall health, so we must bridge the medical and economic determinants to care for patients' total health care needs," Nycz said. "Service-learning opportunities like those offered through participation on the Community Connections Team provide students with a broader experience than would be found in the traditional health care setting, and our hope is to recruit more students into the health care field."

While many UW-Eau Claire students serving as Community Connections Team volunteers are enrolled in pre-professional health programs, volunteers study a variety of subjects, including social work, nursing and kinesiology.

Photo caption: UW-Eau Claire student volunteers with the Community Connections Team.