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Maslowski wellness center gift prompts Tri-County Health Care research

Research: A word in the full name of the $12.4 million Wadena wellness center that often gets overlooked.

Tri-County Health Care is in the early stages of what is expected to be a seven to ten year study that will measure the health outcomes of Wadena residents.

"In this case, the facility, the (Maslowski Wellness and Research Center), is a critical element in this research," said Joel Beiswenger, TCHC president and CEO. "The research marries with the bricks-and-mortar facility and everything that's in it. The facility is so instrumental in doing the research, that's why they are put together."

Because the Maslowski Charitable Trust's charter calls for helping fund medical research, the wellness center fundraising committee knew they couldn't just ask for a capital contribution. So they decided to make the building a catalyst for a "groundbreaking rural health research study," said Beiswenger, a committee member. "This is a long-term community wide, region-wide study."

Wadena County is one of the unhealthiest counties in Minnesota, ranking 79th out of 87, according to 2013 statistics from the University of Wisconsin's Population Health Institute. It is worse than the state average in premature deaths, adult obesity and physical activity. In other areas, such as smoking, drinking and sexually transmitted infections, it beats the state average.

US Census data shows the Wadena area is also one of the poorest in the state.

"You don't turn the socioeconomic status overnight. That's kind of a generational correction by doing economic development, education, these sorts of things," Beiswenger said. "We are attempting to see if we can take other actions - tangible actions to help our citizens."

It's too early to say what those actions will be.

"We are still in the infancy of designing the research study," Beiswenger said. "This is how research studies are put together. You identify a problem, you identify a goal and you put a conceptual program together. We are in the phase right now of developing the specific details."

When preparing an initial proposal to present to the Maslowski trust a year ago, TCHC consulted Wadena native David Hunnicutt, who owns Nebraska-based Wellness Council of America, a nonprofit that focuses on workplace wellness.

The document outlined the broad scope of the research study. "In partnership with WELCOA, we will utilize health biometric screenings along with a high risk assessment tool to determine health status of the study groups into low, moderate and high risk categories," the proposal stated.

This summer, TCHC started research on the majority of its 420 employees.

Approximately 85 percent of them completed a health risk assessment survey in July. In November, the hospital offered free blood screenings and other objective tests. So far, 60 percent have participated in these "biometric" screenings, but due to demand, TCHC will offer another date in January.

"Essentially right now we're in the baseline gathering mode, which will fit just fine into whatever detail we put together," Beiswenger said.

In the coming years, the study will expand to dependents of TCHC employees, other Wadena employers and other groups yet to be selected.

Beiswenger said the he's had discussions with a person with "experience doing wellness research in rural communities" who he hopes to bring into the study early in the year. With the professional researcher's guidance, the details of what will be studied and whom will become clearer.

HealthPartners, the city's insurance provider which donated $50,000 to help lower-income kids get wellness center memberships, has volunteered its research department to crunch the complicated data the study will yield.

TCHC has partnered with studies through the University of Minnesota and other organizations, including cardiac research and a senior fitness project at Fair Oaks Lodge.

"We have a history of being engaged and involved in research," Beiswenger said.

This time it is taking the lead. Initially, TCHC will cover the costs, estimated at $40-50,000 a year, but longer term, it hopes grants or other support will flow in.

Although TCHC could have done the research study without the wellness center, the project provides a venue for fitness and programming that will make measuring outcomes easier, Beiswenger said, adding there is more to wellness than physical health.

"The goal is that the wellness center is more holistic," he said. "The center is a way to emphasize we are a wellness-oriented community. That's pretty integral to the research."

The overarching goal, Beiswenger said, is to determine the factors that most influence wellness, whether it be physical activity, socioeconomics, the facilities or something else.

"Using this information we can develop programs to that we get the best value for the dollars we invest in this community," he said. "Hopefully, within this generation, my grandson's generation - he's one and a half - in 20 years he and his kids have a better place to live, a better community, better health and wellness overall, therefore a longer lifespan."