When I initially sought out the opportunity to spend a year in service with the National Health Corps in Chicago, I anticipated igniting beneficial lifestyle changes on an individual scale and population level. While I expected challenges along the way, I don’t think I fully grasped a true understanding of the specific barriers that patients would face in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. While I have always been aware that barriers to optimal health exist in low-income communities, I have gained a more intimate insight into the specific obstacles that these individuals face as a health educator at a school-based clinic and federally qualified health center.
While many of my patients take advantage of all of the services offered by Heartland and other similar clinics around the area, I often find that those same patients face economic barriers in maintaining their health. I vividly remember my first encounter with Ashley*, a middle-aged woman who had been interested in losing weight. While I was discussing the different affordable healthy options available at various grocery stores to aid in creating a healthy diet, Ashley looked at me with a bewildered look on her face, saying “I only get $15 a month in food stamps, and I can barely afford to buy anything else.” My eyes bulged at that revelation. $15 each month is not nearly enough for groceries, especially when balancing economic instability and other monetary responsibilities, such as rent or gas.
Unsurprisingly enough, this burden was not just Ashley’s to bear. I ran into other patients and students who were impacted by this same problem. In fact, students have indicated they are more likely to purchase cheap fast food items or gas station snacks on their way to school, citing the lower prices of these items compared to healthier options.
I was disheartened by the effects of such barriers on my patients’ health, but fortunately I have let it fuel me toward making an impact on the community I serve rather than allowing it to consume me. Since that encounter with Ashley, I have consistently strengthened my approach of being more patient-centered and now take extra time to ensure that I share and invest in resources that will suit the budget of each individual patient, as well as using motivational interviewing to more accurately assess their concerns. I am also actively working on connecting our patients with local organizations, such as the Greater Chicago Food Depository, so that they may have the opportunity to enjoy healthy groceries without breaking the bank. My experience as a health educator has enabled me to learn a great deal from my patients, which I believe will continue to help me serve this community in the proper capacity.
*Name has been changed.
This blog post was written by NHC Chicago 2017-18 member Sandra Folarin.
Sandra is a Health Educator at Heartland Health Center - Uplift/Wilson.