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February 2012

Creating health care ambassadors

Date: February 9, 2012

Dennis Krouse discusses with Sister Mary Lambert Rossi (L) and Sister Michael Marie Hartman his lay health presentation to the congregation of St. Rita’s Catholic Church.

Internist Anthony Accurso surveys his class of students before giving them a primer on primary care medicine. “A primary care physician is like a general contractor,” says Accurso, an internal medicine physician at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. “We coordinate your care. The role of a primary care physician is to ensure that you get the care you need, and protect you from care you do not need.”

During his one-hour class, Accurso taught his students how to improve their relationship with their primary care physicians by making a list of important questions before their appointments, being open and honest, and voicing their concerns and beliefs.

“There was a lot of enthusiasm during the class,” Accurso says. “Everyone had a wealth of health care experiences from their own lives.”

 Accurso’s class isn’t what one might expect, and the students aren’t first-year medical students or residents sharpening their skills to become board certified physicians. He and other Johns Hopkins Bayview doctors, nurses, pharmacists and dieticians are teaching free classes as part of the medical center’s new Lay Health Educator program, which gives representatives from religious congregations in southeast Baltimore City and County the training, resources and ongoing support they need to become health care ambassadors for their communities.

The program is one aspect of Johns Hopkins Bayview’s new Healthy Community Partnership initiative, which joins the Medical Center with area congregations to enhance community health by addressing health care disparities, improving access to medical care and offering educational programs.

The concept is simple. Johns Hopkins Bayview faculty and staff volunteer their time and talents to teach a 10-week series of classes at the medical center. Lay people from local congregations donate their time to participate in the classes and bring their new knowledge back to their communities through events like blood pressure screenings and diabetes health fairs. No prior training or health care experience is needed to be a student in the program.

“This isn’t a new concept, having volunteers teach other volunteers,” says Heidi Minken, director of development at Johns Hopkins Bayview. “But it’s a concept that’s being lost to technology. People don’t have the face-to-face time that they used to. This program aims to bridge that gap.”

During their sessions, the Lay Health Educators receive easy-to-digest information on a number of health topics, including heart disease, hypertension, cancer, diabetes, depression, dementia and medication management. “You could tell all of the presenters wanted to be there,” says Dennis Krouse, a parishioner from St. Rita’s Catholic Faith Community in Dundalk who participated in the program. “And we all had some very good questions, so there was a lot of interaction back and forth.”

The first cohort of the Lay Health Educator program graduated at a special ceremony on November 17, and though they are now being sent out to their communities to share their knowledge, they don’t have to do it alone. Each new educator received a binder full of information from every presentation and a DVD of each recorded class to refer back to. They also will gather back at Johns Hopkins Bayview from time to time to meet with their instructors and share experiences.

“We have formed connections, and are embarking on an incredible journey together,” says Renee Blanding, vice president of medical affairs at Johns Hopkins Bayview. “I’m grateful for the ‘wireless’ connections we have formed. This is only the beginning.”

The program’s inaugural class had a wonderful response from students and presenters alike. For example, Deborah Johnson, a parishioner from Union Baptist Church in Turner Station and a Lay Health educator, calls her evenings in the classes “time well spent.” She plans to incorporate some of the information she’s gained into a summer youth program she helps to organize, and also include weekly health facts in her church bulletin.

Many of the presenters were Johns Hopkins Bayview internal medicine residents who were eager to share what limited free time they have after their 80-hour work weeks to benefit community health education.

“This has been an exciting and inspiring journey so far,” says Dan Hale, special advisor to the the president of Johns Hopkins Bayview. Hale worked with President Richard Bennett to organize the Healthy Community Partnership initiative. “The residents were always well organized with wonderful presentations, and surrounded by eager learners. We look forward to continuing this journey together.”

The next cohort of the program will begin classes in the fall. For more information about the program, or how to get involved, please contact Kimberly Monson at or 410-550-1118.

—Sara Baker