Information, Please Knowledge Is Power When It Comes To Women’s Health, Program Organizers Say

Lynn Ostrowski says that too many people have a tendency, particularly in medical matters, to act without having all the facts.
The manager of health programs at Health New England was quick to give an example: estrogen-replacement therapy. Despite its solid reputation as a useful defense against the effects of menopause, many women go without the treatment because of a rumored risk of breast cancer.

But in reality, Ostrowski said, the risk difference is negligible, and women without estrogen treatments are greatly increasing their risk of heart attack — which, ironically, is far and away a more significant killer of women than all types of cancer combined.

In the Internet age, women — and men, too — are increasingly taking steps to manage their own health decisions. As an employee of a health maintenance organization (HMO), Ostrowski sees this as a good thing — as long as patients are acting on correct information.

With that concern in mind, the Springfield-based health plan continuesits yearlong “Celebrating Women” series of educational programs, targeting key issues for women and arming them with as much knowledge as possible.

Focus on Women

Understanding that it could do more to disseminate important health information than publish newsletters, Health New England launched a series of educational programs in 2001 that focused on family issues. Those programs touched upon issues ranging from talking with children about drugs to how individual stresses in a family trickle down to each member.

“Everyone is part of a family — whether traditional or non-traditional — so it was a good starting point,” Ostrowski said. “For example, some families are in that sandwich generation, where they’re not only raising children but simultaneously taking care of aging parents.”

Considering that series a success, the HMO decided to produce a similar program this year centered on women’s health issues. Two seminars, one on osteoporosis and the other dealing with heart disease, have already taken place and were attended by hundreds of women, Ostrowski said.

“Each year, we’re looking for a different theme to focus on in addition to all our other health management and prevention initiatives,” said Alres Dinnall, a nurse and program coordinator for Health New England. “This year, we decided in our brainstorming that it would be a year celebrating women.”

The next event is a “menopause town meeting” on Sept. 25 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Best Western Sovereign Hotel in West Springfield. The seminar will feature speakers Carol Landau, Michelle G. Cyr, and Anne W. Moulton, doctors from the Brown University School of Medicine who wrote The Complete Book of Menopause: Every Woman’s Guide to Good Health.

Finally, Oct. 16 will bring a health fair at the same location from 5 to 9 p.m., featuring bone density, cholesterol, and blood pressure screenings; massage, yoga, and Reiki demonstrations; and a host of other informational activities, from art therapy and skin analysis to nutrition and beauty tips.

There’s a receptive audience in the community for such programs, Ostrowski said, particularly among the over-40 crowd.

“What we learned from the family series is that women take care of everyone else first, putting their needs last, and often their needs get completely put aside, especially when they’re dealing with small children or aging parents in the house, or working full time and juggling schedules,” she said.

“They put their own health needs on the back burner. This program tries to bring it to the forefront, saying, ‘you need to be healthy in order to meet the needs of your loved ones. Your health is just as important and needs to be tended to.’”

But even if a woman wants to focus on her own health, sometimes she doesn’t have enough information to make confident choices. In the example of estrogen therapy and breast cancer, Ostrowski noted, many women don’t realize that heart disease, not cancer, is the top killer of both women and men, and for women, that risk goes up after menopause with the loss of the body’s natural estrogen production.

“I think women are sometimes confused because the literature is contradictory,” she said. “A specialist and a general physician might tell you different things, so you don’t know what’s best. Our goal is to at least shed some light on women’s health issues and give them some information so they can make an informed decision and be informed when discussing it with their providers, because often there’s no one right answer.”

A Critical Role

Admittedly, Ostrowski said, some people might not naturally associate an HMO with educational outreach – especially not programs open to the entire community, as these are.

But education is indeed integral to the mission of Health New England, she asserted, saying enrichment programs that help members better manage their own care is a critical element to improving their health. And people who take an active role in their own health care often require less of the system, leading to cost savings all around.

“Health programs really factor into every part of our mission,” she said. “It always amazes me that so few people actually connect an HMO with health programs.” But the very term ‘health maintenance’ speaks not only of treatment but of prevention, and education, she said, is a crucial component to proper prevention.

Good information is especially important, she added, when one considers that the average person manages his or her own health without a doctor’s assistance perhaps 95{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of the time, for conditions as routine as colds and coughs. “If we can provide them with the resources to be more active consumers and more informed patients, the end result will be patient satisfaction.”

That’s why Ostrowski is counting on not just the Celebrating Women seminars but a series of mailings to members on the same issues to drive home the point that self-education on health matters is a must.

“There is a whole group of situational factors, from family history to a woman’s comfort level with her provider, that help determine what’s best for that particular person,” she said. “We just want to shed some light on the mystery surrounding it all.” After all, good health doesn’t have to be mysterious, she concluded, and patients can never know too much.

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