The effort to combat child obesity, which has more than tripled in recent decades, became local Thursday when the first focus groups of a national pilot program met in Hall County.
"We're looking at a huge epidemic of diabetes, cardiovascular health and social consequences as well," said Dr. Anjali Jain, a senior research scientist for the Lewin Group, a subsidiary company of UnitedHealth Group, which reported the national increase of less than 5 percent of children being obese increasing to 20 percent in the past 30 years.
The national organization decided to help combat the issue with a new wellness initiative and recently chose Hall County Schools for the pilot.
On Thursday, UnitedHealth brought together its focus groups of local experts and school leaders at the Lanier Charter Career Academy in Gainesville.
"Our goal is to scale this across the country, and you are helping to set the stage," said Deb Sundal of the UnitedHealth Center for Health Reform and Modernization.
The first focus group included people who work in the health field, such as pediatricians and clinical directors. Focus groups also include school personnel and parents.
The health group was looking for feedback, ideas and community resources for the program, Hall County Schools spokesman Gordon Higgins said.
"A lot of the final product will be the result of what they heard at the meetings today," he said. "They'll work towards building a model."
The health group's general plan is to take a three-pronged approach to combat childhood obesity: identify, counsel and refer.
School nurses would collect health information and identify students who are at risk for obesity. The program will then offer counseling, referrals to community resources and other services.
Additional goals would be to hire a local health care coordinator for Hall County, who would work from the school district's central office, and to provide School Nurse Childhood Obesity Prevention Education training for school nurses, said Rick Barbari, vice-president for consumer engagement solutions for Optimum Health, a wing of UnitedHealth.
"We want to bring the resources we have to you," Barbari said, to the health focus group. "We also want to introduce things that will be here for a long period of time."
Members of the health focus group said they were receptive to theprogram but had a few concerns.
Representatives from UnitedHealth mentioned grant funding for some of the programs, which Eugene Cindea, a pediatrician for The Longstreet Clinic said he was wary of. He questioned how the group plans to sustain long-term programs.
"Obesity is attacked in communities across the country only to be swept away when grant money disappears," Cindea said.
Sundal said funding is already in place for the current school year and next, but securing additional money is another component the group will look at.
"We're studying outcomes," Sundal said. "There are people here that are passionate to make this go forward. One and a half years is the minimum, but that's not our goal."
Local health professionals gave UnitedHealth ideas of the type of wellness initiative they would like to see.
Suggestions included providing busy parents on a budget tips for healthy meal options, revising school lunch menus and using new technology to spread informational material, rather than using traditional pamphlets.
The group also discussed how to measure the success of the initiative. The group may look at absenteeism rates, academic achievement and Body Mass Index numbers, Jain said.
Cindea said success could also come from the program's influence.
"I think the success of the program is not the individual numbers such as weight loss but in showing the community that we can start a program like this with buy-in from the school district that can affect a person's life over time," he said.
UnitedHealth representatives said many of the program facets will be funded by the organization, including hiring the local health care coordinator. The coordinator will help facilitate relationships in the community and advance initiatives in the district, among other responsibilities, Barbari said.
The next step for UnitedHealth will be to refine a model for the program, which could be introduced to Hall County this year. The group also plans to publish the results of its findings at the end of next school year.