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Your faculty and staff news since 1965
April 18, 2005
Volume 40, Number 9

HSC offers campus employees chance to reduce stress

By Cindy Foster

Doctors have long known that stress can trigger disease, make medical conditions worse, and create barriers to obtaining appropriate healthcare. Now UNM employees with UNM health providers might get the chance to manage that stress in a way that can reduce costs.

“There is a relationship between adverse events and health in people’s lives,” said Deborah Helitzer, director of the UNM School of Medicine Office of Evaluation, assistant dean for research at the SOM and vice chair for research in the Department of Family and Community Medicine.

Helitzer is leading a team of HSC researchers to investigate whether UNM employees can work with their providers to discover underlying basis for some chronic diseases and increase their well-being in the process. Healthcare providers in pediatrics, psychiatry, family and community medicine, and internal medicine are participating in the project.

“We know stress definitely affects a person’s physical and mental health,” Helitzer said. “For example, stress and depression are both conditions that can make a patient more prone to being distracted and being involved in accidents.”

Helitzer received one of 17 grants awarded by the Centers for Disease Control designed to develop workplace strategies to increase physical activity, improve diets and nutrition and reduce obesity. The three-year grant will be used to test the effectiveness of an interactive behavioral and health risk assessment system for UNM employees who have UNM providers.

“We’re hoping that by talking to your health provider about what is really going on in your life – for instance, if you are facing an imminent divorce – then the employee and provider, as a team, may be able to map out a plan for facing that stress and its impact throughout the year,” she said.

Participants will complete an eight-part, 40-minute health and behavior risk assessment of their medical and mental history; current and prior life situation and prior health system use. Patients and providers in the intervention group will review a profile of the patient’s response together during an annual physical appointment and negotiate a treatment plan that takes the identified health risks into account. The control group will also have an annual physical but the results of the assessment will not be available for the patients and physicians to discuss.

“We believe it will help focus conversation and help patients talk about what’s really going on in their lives – things that they are not used to discussing with their providers. They can then sit down together and make a game plan to address these issues for the coming year,” Helitzer said.

“There are things people can do if they have the resources to counteract chronic disease,” she said. “And, we should be able to quantify this by tracking changes in health outcomes and changes in employees’ utilization of health services.

Part of the study is to test a hypothesis that such a game plan will result in fewer trips to the ER. Another assumption is that addressing underlying reasons for poor health over the long term will increase employee management of health and decrease absenteeism and use of sick leave.

Only UNM employees who have UNM health providers are eligible to participate in the study.

Recruitment should begin in the fall.

Employees should look for a letter from their UNM primary care provider inviting them to participate in the study.