Farmers are known for their work ethic, caring for their own families and countless others through the fruits of their labor. With so much focus on carrying out the day-to-day work, it’s often hard for farmers to find time to care for themselves.
The Rural Health Initiative (RHI) was born of that recognition. It began in 2004 as the rural home health care pilot program, serving farmers in Shawano County. It’s gone on to create nearly two decades of positive impact.
The program began after the ThedaCare Community Health Action Team (CHAT) explored why farmers often failed to seek health care, except for emergency situations, says Rhonda Strebel, manager of what’s now known as ThedaCare RHI.
The team identified three major reasons: lack of convenient access to health care, an attitude of “If I can get up and get my work done, I must be OK,” and difficulty obtaining affordable insurance.
“Being self-employed, many farmers could only afford catastrophic health insurance,” Strebel says.
During a listening session, one farm family noted that the key was bringing care to the farmers, and that’s just what the program has done.
RHI became a nonprofit, independent organization. It developed its “Kitchen Wellness” program that took Strebel to the homes of farmers in Shawano County to do wellness checks, including blood pressure and cholesterol readings, glucose and A1C testing, and weight and obesity monitoring.
“We did and continue to do basic health screenings to provide people with information about what their various readings mean,” she says. “If necessary, we help them find a health care provider and do some health coaching and referrals.”
Hearing from Farm Families and Businesses
In the case of large dairy operations, RHI team members meet with employees at their workplace. Breeze Dairy Group LLC, with farms in Fond du Lac, Waushara, Langlade and Pierce counties, is one large dairy operation in northeast Wisconsin that participates in the RHI program.
Katie Gerrits, director of human resources for Breeze Dairy Group, says it’s hard for team members to get to offsite appointments during business hours.
“We knew our team members were not getting routine health checks, and we wanted to change that. That’s why I connected with RHI,” Gerrits says. “This free, onsite testing is a great benefit for our employees. I wanted to ensure we were doing what we could to support the important to work.”
Gerrits says when the company learned of a way Breeze Dairy Group could support the RHI program, it was delighted to give back.
Becoming Part of ThedaCare
RHI became a part of ThedaCare in 2021. It now operates under the umbrella of the ThedaCare Family of Foundations. It includes a fund to which people, organizations and companies can donate to support RHI’s efforts.
Financial support from ThedaCare, a Health Equity Grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and contributions from donors have provided RHI with the funds to expand its services to seven counties that ThedaCare serves: Green Lake, Marquette, Outagamie, Shawano, Waupaca, Waushara and Winnebago.
The program now serves all rural residents, not just farmers, and RHI has an outreach health specialist in each of the seven counties. Anyone living in a rural area can call the specialist in their county to set up an appointment for a free health screening.
“We encourage everyone to see a primary care provider regularly, and for some folks, we also understand that might not be possible for a variety of reasons,” Strebel says. “Those are the people we are hoping to reach. We really want to ensure they understand their health is important as well.”
The health specialists will soon be joined by two nurse practitioners, who will also conduct in-home and virtual visits with rural residents. This will allow the program to expand to offering clinical services.
The clinical services will come with a charge that will be billed from ThedaCare. If the person or family does not have health insurance, the health specialists will connect them with ThedaCare benefit specialists who can help them find insurance or Medicaid coverage.
In addition to nurse practitioners, RHI can now connect clients to pharmacists, nutritionists and behavioral health specialists. It also has interpreters to assist in communicating with Latino and Hmong workers and families.
Looking to the Future
In 2023, RHI plans to begin offering lifestyle wellness classes, teaching people about healthy eating, including how to cook with healthier ingredients they may not be familiar with and how to revamp recipes using healthy foods.
“We’ll be talking about good nutrition, exercise for fitness, and mindfulness — taking time to think, pray or meditate — whatever that individual may do to calm their lives and reduce stress,” Strebel says. “These classes will be offered in convenient locations where people will feel comfortable.”