NORWICH, Conn. – Among the throngs of patrons to Norwich’s weekly farmers market are people like Nely Pagan and her two young children.

The fresh produce Pagan brings home to her family comes courtesy of Rx for Health, a prescription-based program sponsored by the William W. Backus Hospital that allows users to obtain $20 worth of vouchers five times over the course of the farmers market’s season.

“It’s very helpful,” Pagan said. ‘We have a lot of fruit and vegetables at home. And it’s more healthy than what you buy at the store, too.”

With the number of visits to the Backus emergency room climbing by 10,000 between 2008 and 2012, the hospital is turning aggressively toward measures aimed at cutting into that statistic, even planning the creation of a preventive medicine institute over the next few years.

“To keep people out of the ER, goal No. 1 is to keep them healthy,” said Jim O’Dea, vice president of clinical service line development. “It’s really a partnership with the patient in terms of their care and providing them resources to stay healthy.”

Rx for Health, which the hospital created three years ago, has proven to be one of Backus’ most successful ventures into the world of preventive health, with 16 families enrolled this year.

Patients are referred by doctors at Generations Family Health Center or United Community and Family Services.

And late last year, Backus rolled out its CareVan, a compact version of its 40-foot Mobile Health Resource Center that can provide procedures like blood pressure and bone density screenings, nutritional advice and other care to communities across the hospital’s service area.

“We’re trying to go right where people live and offer new preventive health measures,” said Alice Facente, a community health education nurse at Backus who frequently travels with the van.

And using intake data from ER visits, the CareVan can “hotspot,” or deploy with resources to help peoples and educate them about specific maladies.

For example, hospital spokesman Shawn Mawhiney said, officials noticed a high number of ER asthma cases from the Baltic section of Sprague, so the vehicle goes to the town’s food bank with a physician who provides information about the condition.

Every Wednesday through October, the van is stationed at Howard T. Brown Memorial Park for the city farmers market, where Backus dietitian Sarah Hospod said employees have a “captive audience” while they provide recipes and healthy eating tips to patrons. “Healthy eating just goes so far in keeping down blood pressure, cholesterol and other problems that keep people out of the ER,” Hospod said.

O’Dea said Backus is leaning on its recent affiliation with Hartford HealthCare to develop its institute.

“What we’re aiming for is to really improve the value of health care by improving quality and lowering cost, and this is really the perfect area to do it in. It’s being able to get people treated before illness gets out ahead of them or before they develop an illness, and what’s exciting for us is our new partner has the same vision,” he said.

Wanda Boyd, of Norwich, sat in the air-conditioned van last Wednesday, a blood pressure sleeve wrapped around her arm as Facente measured the results, which came back at 120 over 85, well within the normal range.

Boyd said she appreciated having the chance to get it checked at no cost.

“I think it’s wonderful, and needed in all communities,” she said of the checks. “It could be life-saving to learn you have this quiet disease.”


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