Microclinic International, a nonprofit organization that uses a social network model to bring together communities and fight chronic diseases, launched its first United States program in Bell County in eastern Kentucky in 2011. The program has been successful in reducing metrics for diabetes and obesity among Bell Countians, and no one is more qualified to talk about how people’s lives have been transformed than Leigh Ann Baker, Bell County facilitator for the Microclinic program.
“I thought the concept was just brilliant,” Baker says. “Because nobody likes walking by themselves, and nobody likes doing things, especially when it comes to trying to get healthier, by yourself. So I saw it being a really good opportunity for our area.”
Bringing People Together to Build Motivation and Support
Born and raised in Bell County, Baker was well aware of the health challenges facing many of her neighbors, due to a variety of reasons. Since core health problems such as obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure are common among people in vulnerable populations around the world, Baker was encouraged by the Microclinic model’s success in far-reaching places such as Jordan in the Middle East.
“I think that sometimes we get stereotyped because of the area we live in,” Baker says. “I tell people that we’re an hour away from access to an interstate, and that is remarkable nowadays because you think of the infrastructure of roads and how quick you can get to places.
“That kind of puts us at a little bit of a disadvantage, but on the other hand you have a lot of really good people in this area, a lot of people that really want to help and want to do right for their community, and show a true love for their community. So when this program came in, it brought a lot of people together that really hadn’t got together to improve their health.”
Baker followed the Microclinic curriculum and used her deep knowledge of the Bell County community to connect with her neighbors, setting goals established by the program and then getting the participants to form Microclinic teams. “My job was to get the program’s point across in a fun, easy way that people can understand,” she says.
Microclinic groups ideally numbered three to five or six persons. They could be comprised of family members, siblings, co-workers, or complete strangers. Even persons who did not know one another before meeting for the Microclinic soon found common ground, Baker says, and formed bonds of support.
“The more you have, the more accountability you have,” Baker explains, “when you’re calling me and saying, ‘All right Lee Ann, let’s go walk,’ and I’m like, ‘No, I’m too tired,’ and you’re saying, ‘No – we’re going walking.’”
Baker says that she made several lasting changes to her own lifestyle habits after participating in the Microclinic program, including stopping drinking sweet tea. Inspired by that change, she crafted a display to show at the Microclinic where she filled Ziploc bags with the amount of sugar in several different soft drinks and sweet teas.
“Something else I did was I went to a fast-food restaurant – I don’t want to say the name – and I got a hamburger and french fries,” she recalls. “And I put them in my office, and left them sitting in my office for a couple months. And I brought the meal into class, and I showed the class that there was no change, there was no mold, there was nothing that had changed to this hamburger and these french fries. That made me re-think the fast food restaurants that I was eating in.”
At her Microclinic, Baker taught members how to read nutrition information on food labels and had them research area restaurants and identify the healthiest food choices at each of them to create a handy guide. She also advised them on altering recipes for meals cooked at home to add healthy ingredients, such as Greek yogurt to ranch dip, for example.
In addition to the in-class success, Baker and participants also influenced other people in the community by changing their habits, she says. Her husband was initially reluctant to try healthier foods, but ended up trading white bread for whole wheat bread, “which was huge for him,” Baker says.
“I think it’s hard not to have contagious health,” she says. “When you’re in this class, it’s so much easier to have contagious health, because you want your family to live longer, you want them to be healthier.”
Watching Microclinic’s Principles Put Into Practice
During a trip to Bell County in the picturesque eastern Kentucky mountains, Kentucky Health host Dr. Wayne Tuckson visited Baker’s Microclinic and met with the participants. He sampled delicious dishes created by members using quinoa and other healthy ingredients, saw how educational materials such as portion plates have helped class members, and heard testimony from members about weight loss, improved A1C blood sugar numbers for Type 2 diabetes, and other success stories.
Willene Black participated in the original Microclinic in 2011. She can’t imagine ever going back to her older lifestyle habits; the lessons learned in her original Microclinic class, and the support she received from fellow members, have endured.
“You don’t realize how much it stays with you,” she says. “If you sit down and think about it, you say, ‘Oh, if it hadn’t been for them, I couldn’t have done so-and-so. The group is wonderful.”
Joy Saylor is Leigh Ann Baker’s mother and participated in her daughter’s Microclinic. Since the program started, she has not been prescribed any new medication and has made a commitment to cook healthier meals and walk every day. She even encouraged a neighbor to walk with her, helping the neighbor lose about 50 pounds.
“It was an interesting class, and really, it is a lifestyle change,” Saylor says. “After I finished the class, you take home what you learn.”
Building on the local success, Baker says that the Microclinic model has since been used in Tennessee, and other public health departments in Kentucky are interested in starting their own programs.
“It’s gone outside of Bell County, and that made me really proud that it started in Bell County and we saw results, and one day at a time, you’re changing the world,” she says.
Watch the first part of KET’s visit with Microclinic in Bell County, featuring interviews with founder and CEO Daniel Zoughbie and chief health economist Eric Feigl-Ding.