A local nonprofit health center is stressing the importance of annual check-ups and health screenings after the COVID-19 pandemic caused a significant decline nationwide in the use of preventive health services.
“We want people to come in before they’re really seriously ill. We don’t want preventive care to go by the wayside. We don’t want early diagnosis to go by the wayside,” Nancy Richman, community engagement director of HealthNet Bloomington Health Center, told The Herald-Times.
The nonprofit health center has dental, medical and mental health services now available to anyone regardless of age, income or insurance coverage status.
Pandemic emphasized importance of preventive care
The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated a decreased use of health services for ongoing preventive and routine health care, according to a 2021 study published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“A lot of people feel hesitant, and so what’s happened with the pandemic is, when people are getting diagnosed with serious illnesses like cancer, it’s further along than it might have been if they had come earlier,” Richman said. “They are afraid to seek health care because they’re afraid that’s where they’re going to get infected.”
Many people are not going to the doctor for those routine check-ups, which can rob medical professionals of the opportunity to spot and identify illnesses early.
Not identifying and treating early chronic illnesses, such as heart conditions, also can leave a patient more vulnerable and susceptible to COVID-19 transmission and severity.
The CDC study lists cancer, heart conditions, diabetes and chronic kidney disease that, while also being among the top 10 causes of death in the United States, are also established risk factors for severe COVID-19.
Physical exams are recommended at least once a year; in addition, a patient may be prone to a certain illness, leading to some regular health screenings.
For most people, dentists recommend having a cleaning and checkup every six months, but additional appointments may be recommended for some.
Local health center’s expanded services, staff
The HealthNet Bloomington Health Center was known as Volunteers in Medicine until its acquisition by HealthNet in late 2019. HealthNet is a nonprofit that also provides primary care health services to the medically underserved in Indianapolis.
According to Richman, the acquisition had been at Volunteers in Medicine’s request so that the center could provide more services to more people.
“People were falling through the cracks,” Richman said.
Before the acquisition, patients had to meet several requirements in order to access the center’s services. Patients had to be uninsured and a resident of either Monroe or Owen County. Their household also had to be significantly under the federal poverty level.
Now, as part of HealthNet, the center can provide services to anyone regardless of their financial situation or where they live.
In 2019, HealthNet received a $650,000 New Access Point grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, through the Health Resources and Services Administration, to renovate the center’s building at 811 W. Second St.
These renovations went beyond a new coat of paint and a name change. By knocking down a wall or two, repurposing spaces, and installing new equipment, HealthNet Bloomington Health Center significantly expanded its medical and dental services.
The center can now provide basic labs, such as drawing blood to measure one’s blood sugar and cholesterol levels or to screen for conditions such as diabetes.
“We can actually draw blood, send the labs out and get a better price for our patients than other local labs would cost,” said Stephen Chambers, registration specialist. “This is totally new. We used to have to send people to get their blood drawn at another location.”
The center doubled the amount of medical exam rooms to 11, some of which are designed with bright colors and cartoonish figures for the newly available pediatric care.
“We can see infants all the way up to elderly people,” Chambers said.
According to Chambers, that means the center can serve each family member, which has led to entire families signing up as patients.
After the renovations, many spaces of the center were repurposed, such as the once in-house pharmacy transitioning into an open-air space for the providers’ and nursing staff’s work stations.
“A great thing about this kind of clinic is the synergy that happens because if a medical provider sees a dental issue, it’s just a matter of walking down the hall and saying this patient needs whatever. And the reverse is true — the dentist might discover something that a medical provider would need to address,” Chambers said.
Kelly Swaby is a dental assistant at HealthNet Bloomington Health Center, and she said she has seen several patients who have not had long-term dental care.
“My heart goes out to so many of them. I get worried about some of them,” Swaby said. “So many people have not had lifelong dental care.”
Many only seek out a dentist when they are already experiencing problems, such as a toothache. Most health professionals recommend going to the dentist at least twice a year for care such as cleaning or exams.
“It’s a constant struggle to get people to understand the importance of preventative dentistry,” Swaby said.
Dental service is available for children and adults.
In addition to medical and dental care, mental health services are available for patients.
The center has an on-site, full-time social worker with a plan to soon have a behavioral health therapist on the local staff as well.
“In the meantime, our clinics in Indianapolis do have therapists and our patients can do video visits with those therapists,” Chambers said.
Measures taken to ensure patient safety during pandemic
The health center has taken every CDC recommendation to outfit the building with COVID-19 preventative measures, according to staff.
“It’s really important that people know that it’s safe,” Richman said.
Every patient is screened for symptoms and the last time they had the risk of COVID-19 exposure. If they answer yes to any of the center’s list of questions, they either wait outside until an specialized exam room can be prepped or have a video visit instead.
The specialized exam room features a high-powered air filtration system.
“If someone comes in and is exhibiting symptoms that would be likely contagious, we can take them to the back of the building, take them right into this room and that protects our other patients,” Chambers said.
According to Richman, the center has a conference room that can be used as a waiting room specifically for patients who might have been exposed to COVID-19. When the exam room is ready, the patient can enter without being exposed to anyone else. Staff also use facial coverings throughout their time in the building.
“Here, we’ve taken every precaution and it really is safe,” Richman said.
People can read more about HealthNet Bloomington Center, such as how to schedule an appointment, at https://www.indyhealthnet.org/Bloomington-Health-Center/.
Contact Rachel Smith at [email protected] or @RachelSmithNews on Twitter.