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Tuesday Aug 26, 2014

Small Investment, Big Payoff: Grants Offer Opportunity to Improve Community Health

Have you ever had an idea that you knew would address a significant problem affecting many of the people in your community? I know there isn't a global answer for all of our patients' problems, but there are some things that can be improved with a little help. Here's one example.

The neighborhood adjacent to the clinic where I work has the highest number of amputees in the country relative to population size. Seriously, the highest in the nation.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a large number of our patients have the big three -- type 2 diabetes, hypertension and hyperlipidemia -- in addition to obesity. Many of these patients have poor diets. This is due, in part, to limited access to healthy, affordable foods combined with easy access to cheap but nutrient-poor, highly processed foods. The neighborhood has roughly a dozen fast food restaurants and only one or two grocery stores.

I knew I could help change those patients' lives for the better; I just needed the funding to do it. But where would the money come from?

I applied for, and received, a grant to help address childhood obesity. Through this project, we built raised-bed gardens at the high school and, with students helping to plant and maintain the gardens, produced quite a yield of fresh produce.

We hoped to boost the availability of nutrient-dense foods and, perhaps, replace some of those nutrient-poor foods. Some of the crops did well; others did not. But teachers and students were able to freely take from the garden when it was time to harvest. Overall, the gardens have been a success, and we are planning to double the size of the gardens this school year to have enough to hold a community-wide event with cooking demonstrations, movement classes and teaching about emotional health.  

Another encouraging development is that students are asking for healthier food -- specifically, a salad bar -- at their school, and teachers are getting used to fresh foods.  

As part of the project, we had residents speak with students about physical activity and even had the students participate in movement activities. We also were able to have a registered dietitian and a resident educate the students on emotional well-being and its impact on fitness.  

I learned quite a bit through this process. I learned how to think through a health problem to develop a project that realistically addresses a problem. I also learned how to think about sustainability; I did not want a project that would only be for one year. Rather, I wanted to create something that could last for many years and have a long-term impact. I learned about completing grant reports and managing a budget, including administrative support, supplies, travel, etc. Some of these are things I would not readily have thought of when considering how to improve the health of my patients.  

As for initially obtaining a grant, some grant applications are more complicated than others, but there are free online resources that can help you through the process.

Grants are a great way to start small in addressing a large, complex problem. Grants can offer you resources you otherwise would not have had and allow you to influence the problem without taking away from your clinical productivity. I hope many of you will seek out grant funds for small ideas or projects you want to implement to improve the health of your patient population. It might take some digging, but opportunities are out there.

Government agencies and health insurance company foundations are two places to consider looking. The AAFP Foundation provides grants for family medicine residents each year to support short-term research projects that address health disparities.

I've learned more than I thought I would throughout this process and will continue to use that knowledge for future endeavors to address community health.  

Meshia Waleh, M.D., is an assistant professor of family and preventive medicine at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine in Columbia.

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