Q&A with Rigo Garcia: “Health educators are like an extension of the provider”

August 11, 2020

Venice Family Clinic’s Health Education department is an important part of the Clinic’s comprehensive health care system, with a focus on ensuring our patients understand their conditions and what they can do to improve their health. Our Health Education team operates five areas of programming: health educators, prenatal health education, diabetes health education, food education and distribution, and employee wellness.

We spoke with Rigoberto Garcia, director of Health Education, about what his department does, why it’s important and how his team has adjusted to the current COVID-19 pandemic.

VFC: The Health Education department covers several areas of health. Tell us about the educational programs.

RG: Our health educators work hand-in-hand with our primary care team providing education on disease, prevention or even as part of treatment. They cover an array of topics, from teaching exercise classes to meeting patients one-on-one to talk about how to lower their blood pressure, for example.

Our prenatal health education team works with pregnant moms, from the time a woman has her pregnancy confirmed to post-partum care, through one-on-one meetings and group classes. One of our most well-received group classes is called CenteringPregnancy, where providers and health educators facilitate patient-centered group sessions, where patients discuss what they’re going through in their pregnancies. We also provide car seats and show patients how to install them, and hold baby shower celebrations.

For our patients with type 2 diabetes, health educators support nurse practitioners to help patients maintain better control of their diabetes. The educators help with case management, assist in medication reconciliation and glucose monitoring.

Our team members really serve as advocates for the patients with our providers.

VFC: What kinds of services do we provide for the Clinic’s employees?

RG: Through our employee wellness program, we send out educational materials to our staff, provide recipes and inspirational quotes, hold mini cooking demonstrations and boost staff morale with Fun Fridays. We also have a fitness challenge every year.

VFC: How does our food program work?

RG: Food programming is our newest area. With funding from generous donors such as Anthem Blue Cross, we were able to kick off our free food markets back in November. In the first few months, we held two events per month, were feeding an average of 200 people at each event and were just providing fruits and vegetables. Since the safer at home order went into effect, our food markets have grown exponentially in response to higher need. We’re now holding giveaways every week, feeding anywhere from 1,500 to 1,800 patients and community members per event, and providing dairy products and baked goods when we can. And about two months ago we added a second distribution site. We even have the UCLA medical residents in our childhood obesity program work the food markets so the providers of tomorrow understand how health education is an important aspect of health care.

VFC: How does food play into health education?

RG: We treat food as medicine. Another one of our newer programs is the food pharmacy, which focuses on the role nutrition plays in helping patients manage chronic disease. The food pharmacy is incorporated into our diabetes provider group visits to emphasize the effects food can have not only on overall health but specifics like blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Patients receive cooking demonstrations where we show them how to substitute healthier ingredients or cooking techniques in some popular cultural dishes, as well as a bag of groceries so they can cook the same dish at home. We try to encourage our patients to make healthier choices.

VFC: Why is health education important?

RG: We’re able to explain what the patient is going through at a level the patient understands. For example, when someone is diagnosed with diabetes, sometimes they’re left in shock because they know it’s going to change their life. The Health Education department can reach out and give that patient the time to ask lots of questions and walk them through what it means to have a specific diagnosis like diabetes – often about an hour.

Our providers recognize that health educators can work almost like an extension of the provider, reinforcing the same messages that the provider wants the patient to understand. Before COVID-19 we held these appointments in our office, a different setting from an exam room, which allows the patient to relax and be more open to accepting the information and ask more questions as well.

VFC: Give us an example of how health education helped one of our patients.

RG: We had a patient who was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes with a hemoglobin A1c level of over 11. The patient was distraught and was even referred to our behavioral health program for depression. One of the things that the Health Education team was able to do was work with this patient to explain what the illness itself was and what the patient needed to do to control it. The patient was resistant at first, but our health educators were persistent. They convinced this patient to attend our diabetes classes, food demonstrations and later our exercise classes. We helped bring this patient’s hemoglobin A1c level down to 7.8.

VFC: How has the Health Education department had to adjust with the COVID-19 pandemic?

RG: We had to restructure all of our programming. Health education is traditionally done face-to-face and very hands-on. Now we’re holding virtual group classes, like exercise and cooking classes, over Zoom. We know that it’s not the same as in person, so we’re keeping classes smaller so our educators can give patients enough attention. These classes have been a hit, and we’re finding that our patients are actually attending more classes in a wider variety than they had before. They want that interaction with us.

We also provide blood pressure machines to patients now, so they can take their own readings at home. We show them how to use it, follow up with them every two weeks to make sure they’re taking their blood pressure readings and then relay those readings to their provider.

We continue to see how we can improve health education services during the pandemic. We’re learning as we go and making sure we stay ahead of the patient as best as we can.