Building a Healthier Community Starts with Healthier Kids

In 1996, when Carol Paret oversaw the launch of the Memorial Hermann Health Centers for Schools program at the WAVE and Kruse Health Centers in the Pasadena Independent School District, her rationale was simple, but poignant: “There was a need.”screen-shot-2016-09-12-at-12-58-03-pm

Now celebrating 20 years of keeping uninsured and underserved students healthy and in school where they can learn and prepare for their futures, the program has expanded to 10 school clinics serving 71 schools in five independent school districts – Aldine, Alief, Houston, Lamar Consolidated and Pasadena. The program is one of many under the supervision of Paret, who is Senior Vice President and Chief Community Health Officer for Memorial Hermann Health System and the CEO of Memorial Hermann Community Benefit Corporation. The Memorial Hermann Health Centers for Schools program has been lauded as “one of the best models in the nation” and a successful collaboration between a health system and school districts by the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services. Its mobile dental program was presented the American Hospital Association’s NOVA Award for its efforts to improve community health.

While the program successfully has provided countless numbers of students in the Greater Houston community with access to medical, mental health, nutritional and dental care that they otherwise may not have received, the “need” remains and is changing, said Paret.

Carol Paret, Senior Vice President and Chief Community Health Officer for Memorial Hermann Health System, CEO of Memorial Hermann Community Benefit Corporation

How Students’ Health Needs Differ Today

According to Paret, the “need” now is different from the “need” two decades ago. “Back then, Memorial Hermann was ahead of the curve as a health system that understood the importance of delivering on a value proposition that could connect the dots between the health and wellbeing of underserved students with their performance in the classroom,” said Paret.

Today, the program reflects how it’s evolving to meet today’s needs by rethinking and adding new upstream programs that can intervene earlier in a student’s life to help reduce and prevent chronic conditions like diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and congestive heart failure that can impact students’ health downstream as adults.

And sooner is definitely better when it comes to diseases like diabetes and obesity that are already affecting high school students in Houston.  A Community Health Needs Assessment report recently completed by Memorial Hermann underscores the urgency to address the community’s health issues proactively. Consider these statistics and what they portend:

  • In 2013, about one-third of Houston high school students were considered overweight (16.3 percent) or obese (17.9 percent).
  • In Harris and Wharton Counties, more than a quarter of all children are considered to be lacking reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food – or food insecure.
  • In 2013, 8.9 percent of high school students in Houston indicated that they did not eat any fruit or drink any fruit juice in the past 7 days.
  • In 2013, two-thirds (66.6 percent) of Houston high school students reported that they had not participated in 60 or more minutes of physical activity for 5 days in the past 7 days.
  • Among youth in Houston in 2013, one-third of Hispanic high school students self-reported feeling sad or hopeless for two or more weeks in the past year, and 12.1 percent of Hispanic Houston high school students self-reported they attempted suicide at least once in the past year. Black, non-Hispanic Houston high students self-reported a suicide attempt rate of 11.3 percent.

Creating a Healthier Community Involves the Entire Community

Paret believes that to effect change and create a healthier community the effort has to be collective with Memorial Hermann and other health systems partnering with businesses, schools, community-based organizations, governmental and social services agencies to reconsider strategies and efforts to help vulnerable populations.

“If we focus more resources upstream on preventing chronic diseases we could have a much broader and wider impact than we could by focusing on treating any one of those diseases downstream,” Paret explained. “There are a lot of efforts in health care now on how to reduce the cost of a diabetic, or how to reduce the cost of caring for a patient with congestive heart failure.

“But the problem is, you have so many people falling into those buckets that even if you can care for them better at a lower cost, the overall cost is going to explode just because of the numbers,” Paret said. “So, we’ve got to help prevent people from having those chronic diseases. We’ve got to identify them earlier so you prevent the diabetes or prevent the heart disease. That’s why we’ve got to move upstream.”

What does that look like programmatically at Memorial Hermann’s Health Centers for Schools?

  • It’s hosting the  H.A.P.P.Y. Boot Camp where students – identified as overweight or at risk of obesity during the school year — are invited to one-week camps to exercise, learn about nutrition and be exposed to counseling that promotes a healthy lifestyle and self-esteem.
  • It’s partnering with Project Fit America to implement fitness programs at schools where Memorial Hermann’s Health Centers for Schools programs are based.
  • It’s collaborating with a group like the Open Dance Project, Inc., a non-profit dance theater company, to teach the students how to have with dance movements and music.
  • And, it’s working with the Houston Food Bank to address food insecurity and availability of healthy food in the household.

“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Paret said. “There are some terrific organizations already doing this work. We can do more collaborating to drive and impact these issues and really change these dynamics. You can’t break the cycle by dealing with them one off.”


Twenty years ago, when Paret and Memorial Hermann launched the Health Centers for Schools program, its primary mission was to serve as a medical home for uninsured and underserved students. Now, she sees the program as serving as a catalyst to improving the overall health of the community.

“But we’ve got to start getting upstream to have a much healthier population,” Paret said. “We have to think about how we go into communities that we know are predisposed to diabetes and other chronic conditions and work with parents and families to help them to address the precursors – lack of healthy food, exercise, and mental health.”

Click here to learn more about Memorial Hermann’s Health Centers for Schools program and Memorial Hermann Community Benefit Corporation.

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Tashika Varma