In late 2021, Community Health Centers of Southeast Kansas (CHCSEK), headquartered in Pittsburg, was awarded grant funding through the KDHE Community Health Worker Teams Program. The Kansas Healthcare Collaborative provides technical assistance for that program in conjunction with KDHE. As part of the grant, CHCSEK implemented the Healthy Heart Ambassador (HHA) program, which is a CDC recognized lifestyle change program and Self Measured Blood Pressure Monitoring (SMBP) program for patients with hypertension. CHCSEK started their HHA program in February of 2022, not realizing that one year later, the HHA program would not only change the lives of their patients, but also the lives of their staff.
The Healthy Heart Ambassador Program is a four-month program to encourage self-monitoring and recording of blood pressure, as well as a heart-healthy diet. The program is led by HHA’s, which are trained lifestyle coaches and patient advocates that help participants monitor and understand their blood pressure readings. The HHA communicates with participants regularly during the program, both face-to-face and by phone or email. They provide support, guidance, and encouragement as participants monitor and record blood pressure at home.
The goals of the HHA Program are:
- Reduction in blood pressure
- Better blood pressure management
- Increased awareness of triggers that elevate blood pressure
- Enhanced knowledge to develop healthier eating habits
Participants in the HHA Program Receive:
- Weekly check-ins from their ambassador via phone or email
- Monthly nutrition education seminars
- Education and support on how to properly self-monitor blood pressure
- Office hour visits to check-in and receive support
Missy Jennings became the Healthy Heart Ambassador for CHCSEK’s HHA program in June of 2022. Prior to filling that role, she worked in the another department at CHCSEK, but saw this role as an opportunity to work directly with patients. She witnessed the impact the CHW Teams Program was having on patients and wanted to be part of that team. Being a Heathy Heart Ambassador gave her that chance.
Missy also knew a thing or two about being a patient with hypertension, as she herself was diagnosed with hypertension. She decided that if she was going to ask her patients to make lifestyle changes, she would follow the program alongside her patients. Missy followed the program and saw major changes in her own health as a result. “When I say I’m following the program, I mean it! I’m talking through experience. I have life experience. I’ve also lost about 60 pounds and I’m off all meds,” says Jennings.
The patients are hearing Missy loud and clear, and who better to lead lifestyle change than someone making changes right alongside them.
Knox* is a 69-year-old patient who credits Missy and CHCSEK’s HHA Program with putting him back on track. Knox started his weight loss journey due to knee pain. His physician referred him to the HHA program in June 2022 and as of February 2022, he was able to lost 100 pounds by following the program and making small changes that have made a big impact on his overall health. He has learned to check his blood pressure at home and manage his weight but admits “it’s a battle”. “Missy has been a life changer,” says Knox. “Talking with her makes things easier. I wish I would have started sooner. I can ride bikes daily with my kids now."
Improving his health has allowed him to take a more active role in raising his kids and allowed him to go to concerts with his wife. She likes country and he likes rock and roll, but they love going to concerts together again. He credits those changes to Missy and the lifestyle modifications from the HHA program. Knox prepares his meals, often separate from the meal his teenage children eat. He eats salad often and has reduced or eliminated bread, sugar, and salt from his diet. He wakes up early in the morning with energy, ready to tackle the day, when before, he struggled to get out of bed. He lifts weights and is focusing on getting stronger.
Naomi* is a 32 year old woman who joined the HHA program at CHCSEK in August of 2022. She was referred to the program by her physician after receiving unexpected diagnoses of hypertension and diabetes during a recent visit, which were major concerns for both Naomi and her physician. Naomi says, “One morning I got a call from Missy...probably one of the best calls in a long time. Accepting that call was probably one of the best decisions I ever made. It has helped me tremendously.”
For Naomi, stress management was a key strategy in managing her health. Through the HHA program, she began walking with Missy and other group members and began self-monitoring her blood pressure, but she also began making other small changes in her life. Naomi learned that it’s OK to ask for help and that setting boundaries is healthy. She learned coping mechanisms like going for a walk or taking a drive when she needed a break. Her journey was not without challenges, but she learned to re-frame her challenges with some coaching from Missy. “You’re not having a setback. It’s just a pause,” shared Naomi about one of the ways Missy has helped her change they way she looks at her health improvement journey.
Naomi has lost over 50 pounds since she joined the HHA program in August of 2022, reaching her first weigh loss goal two months early. She says, “Little changes make a big difference.”
For clinics who might be on the fence, Missy encourages clinics to consider HHA. Missy recognizes that the traditional doctor-patient-nurse relationship is often restricted by time. The provider and nurse have other patients waiting for them and are often limited in the time they can spend with the patient due to their schedule. “We can help them better their health. If they pour themselves into the program, it’s rewarding. Doing what I can to make them successful has made me a successful coach. I’m their liaison to their provider. They come to me. I’m their person.”
Often clinics are most worried about where they will host the Nutrition Seminars but Missy advises that in her experience, the "where" is the easy part. She has found that most communities have public spaces, churches, civic organizations or other community organizations that are happy to host the classes such as apartment complexes, senior centers or libraries if the clinic or hospital does not have meeting space.
*Names have been changed to protect patient privacy.