Public Affairs

Prevention is Key to California’s Health

June 30, 2011
By Elizabeth Chapin

Part of the CSUDH Nursing team helping out with eye examination at last year's RAM clinic in Los Angeles.A main component to ensuring California’s health is the continued care for the state’s underserved and uninsured population. Through student service-learning, coordinated campus efforts, and the impact of its graduates, the California State University is helping to serve the healthcare needs of the underserved.

According to the California Health Care Foundation, California has both a lower percentage of individuals with employer-sponsored coverage and a higher proportion of uninsured than the rest of the nation—about 21 percent, or 6.8 million Californians do not have health insurance. Therefore, it’s critical that the state is equipped with experienced graduates with the skills to care for this growing segment.

Students volunteer to help those in need, which include the estimated 7.6 million Californians that currently rely on “safety-net” providers for their regular health care services. The state’s safety-net is composed of providers that deliver a broad range of health care services to medically underserved and uninsured residents. Residents that are demographically similar: consisting primarily low income, racially and ethnically diverse, and most often women and children.

To reduce overall healthcare costs, most safety-net clinics focus primarily on preventative care. Preventative care includes routine health procedures like immunizations and screenings for health concerns, such as high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes and HIV. These simple and routine screenings are ideal because they can prevent life-threatening diseases and reduce costs for the patient as well as state/federal government healthcare subsidies.

Similar to the CSU, California’s community clinics are located throughout the state, serving both densely-populated and rural areas. Students, graduates and faculty are fulfilling their communities’ need for preventative care of the underserved—from rural Northern California to the urban and metropolitan areas of the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

One of the ways CSU Dominguez Hills nursing students play a role in their communities’ health is through their service in Remote Area Medical (RAM) clinics, which are held in the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Students assist practitioners to provide free exams to thousands of underserved Los Angeles residents at the weeklong clinic—conducting procedures in general medicine, podiatry, pharmacy and women’s health.

Dr. Patricia A. Hinchberger, a registered nurse and director of the Masters Entry Program in Nursing, said that the event was an invaluable experience for students, providing them with first-hand exposure to the uninsured and underinsured in Los Angeles.

“This event reinforces why I am passionate about public health care access to all in our nation,” she said. “It also serves to reinforce our core values of caring, integrity, diversity and excellence in health care education.”

Students serving at the RAM clinic also noted that their bilingual abilities helped them communicate with patients and serve them better. Cal State L.A. professor Villa Valentine says that students with bilingual skills are in high demand in the public health field—their communication skills help to properly address common misinformation and cultural stereotypes related to diseases that can be seen in diverse groups.

“For example, people in the Latino community may mistake signs of a stroke or heart attack as ‘feeling dizzy’ or ‘being scared,’” Valentine said. “It’s important to dispel these myths because recognizing these symptoms right away can mean life or death.”

To help spread this information, students at CSU Dominguez Hills and many other CSU campuses take part in health fairs designed to educate the underserved community. CSU Dominguez Hills’ nursing students recently worked at a health fair in partnership with Kaiser South Bay. Their booths offered educational information on topics such as nutrition and emergency preparedness.

California’s underserved are not limited to adults. Campuses like CSU Long Beach have joined forces with the community to make sure local children are receiving proper healthcare. The campus’ partnership with the Norwalk Unified School District has led to a successful program called Health on Wheels, which has served nearly 18,000 children since 1996.

Health on Wheels is literally a mobile doctor’s office that travels to local grade schools. Pediatric Nurse Practitioner (PNP) students provide physical exams, treat and diagnose minor illnesses, give immunizations, work with laboratory services, and educate children about health issues. Faculty members and students also provide equipment, supplies and educational materials.

CSU Long Beach professor and Health on Wheels’ director, Dr. Natalie Cheffer says that under faculty supervision, the students learn to work with a population that has limited or no access to health care services.

“In order to graduate, PNP nursing students are required to serve the community for 500 hours,” Cheffer said. “The students working in Health on Wheels are not only fulfilling that requirement which gives them valuable experience but they are aiding those in need.”

Underserved residents can also struggle with other aspects of the healthcare process, like keeping track of immunization and personal health records.

One of the assignments students enrolled in Sacramento State’s Community Health Nursing course receive involves maintaining the medical records of homeless and at-risk young people—records that are often lost as they are transferred from clinic to clinic.

The students volunteer at Healthshack at the Wind Youth Center, where they help young people create an online, personal health record.

“The nursing students do a fantastic job of tracking down medical records and scanning them in our office so the young people have a safe electronic copy and don’t have to worry about losing paperwork along the way,” Project Manager Melissa Binger says.

The nursing students also immunize Wind clients against a wide range of illnesses, treat minor injuries such as scrapes and twisted ankles, and refer them to emergency rooms or physicians for more serious problems.

Sacramento State nursing students volunteering at the Wind Youth Center.The care implemented by CSU students as part of degrees in nursing, public health and other health care professions is making an impact on the health of California. As graduates, they continue to serve the underserved, and benefit those without benefits—leading to reduced health care costs and a healthier California.