HATTIESBURG, MS. (THE UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI) – Many people identify the Mississippi Delta as the birthplace of the blues, but the region also owns a more dubious distinction as one of the country's primary hotbeds for cardiovascular disease.
Experts with The Center for Sustainable Health Outreach (CSHO) at The University of Southern Mississippi are striving to alter that reality with a community-based project aimed to curb the incidence of heart disease and strokes. Since July of 2008 the Getting on Target with Community Health Advisors Project (GOTCHA) has been instrumental in providing materials, information and professional guidance aimed at raising awareness and improving the health of Delta residents.
"We are currently working with 40 community health advisors in the Mississippi Delta," said Dr. Susan Mayfield-Johnson, Director of the Center for Sustainable Health Outreach. "We still have a few counties to go, but we have completed the trainings for Bolivar, Humphreys, Sunflower and Washington counties."
Mayfield-Johnson, who serves as GOTCHA's principal investigator, explains that community health advisors represent individuals who are indigenous to their communities and who act as links between community members and the service delivery system.
"As community members, these workers are able to integrate health information about prevention of disease and the health system into the community's culture, language and value systems," she said. "Therefore, they reduce cultural, linguistic, social and financial barriers to health care."
In preparing the groundwork for the GOTCHA project, informal discussions were held with two diverse groups in the Delta – health care professionals from Sunflower County and community members from Coahoma County. During those meetings, participants identified cardiovascular disease, including stroke, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and obesity as priority health concerns.
Group participants specifically noted the lack of basic knowledge concerning risk factors, prevention methods, lifestyle and behavioral modification and the lack of access to health care in the community.
"They expressed concern that there was not enough attention being paid to the prevention of these chronic conditions and that the history and culture of the Mississippi Delta contributed to many of the negative health behaviors," said Mayfield-Johnson.
Statistics show that cardiovascular disease, principally heart disease and stroke, ranks as the leading cause of death in Mississippi. African Americans and persons with lower socioeconomic status, lower education levels and limited access to care are at particular risk for cardiovascular disease. The Mississippi Delta represents one of the poorest and more disadvantaged areas of the United States.
Mayfield-Johnson notes that although the project's emphasis has been placed on the prevention and early detection of strokes in African American men and women, attention has also been focused on the contributing risk factors of several chronic diseases, specifically diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease and lifestyle modification and management principles of improved nutrition, stress management and increased physical activity.
Dr. Lachel Story, assistant professor in the School of Nursing at Southern Miss, serves as the contact nurse and an investigator for the GOTCHA project. Story helps train community health advisors regarding diabetes and hypertension education as well as training them to take blood pressures and blood glucose measures in the community.
"After sufficient training, these community members can go out and conduct these screenings in their communities and provide education accordingly," said Story. "The project gives each trainee a kit upon completion of training to conduct these services in their communities."
Funding for the GOTCHA project is provided by the Delta Health Alliance, a non-profit organization through the Rural Health Policy, Health Resources and Services Administration.
Mayfield-Johnson has been working in the field of community health for the past 10 years where her emphasis has been with underserved communities and community health workers. Through community-based initiatives like GOTCHA, she and other health care professionals are determined to transform lives in the Mississippi Delta.
"We have a saying at CHSO: 'If the problem is in the community, the solutions are in the community,' " said Mayfield-Johnson. "Community health advisors are solutions in many communities. They are intimately linked to their communities because they are members of their communities. Their loyalty is to their communities.
"By truly partnering with community health advisors to change the culture around cardiovascular disease, we can make a difference."