Grant helps low-income asthmatic children breathe easier

A five-year, $3.2 million federal grant to the University of Illinois at Chicago in partnership with Erie Family Health Center will examine the effectiveness of two interventions to improve asthma control for children in low-income families in Chicago.

Despite environmental laws that have improved air quality — and asthma medications that can reduce symptoms and halt attacks — the number of children with asthma continues to rise in the U.S., disproportionately affecting children in low-income households. In parts of Chicago, one in four children has asthma, the number-one reason for missing school.

Funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the “Asthma Action at Erie” trial will compare two models of asthma education and support. One group of families will receive asthma education in the clinic from certified asthma educators. The other group will receive asthma support in the home from community health workers. All families will also be evaluated for mental health needs and receive help in obtaining services.

Certified asthma educators receive specialized training in asthma care based on national standards of care — while community health workers, who often live in the community they serve, are trained in health education, coordination of care, and identifying barriers to care.

“The use of certified asthma educators is currently the ‘gold standard’ for the educational component of asthma care, yet we do not know how much certified asthma educators actually improve asthma outcomes,” said Dr. Molly Martin, a pediatrician at the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System and the principal investigator on the project.

Community health workers, she said, have been shown to improve asthma outcomes in past research studies, but “haven’t been tested in real-world settings.”

“One of our goals is to see how community health workers can be best incorporated into clinic-based care,” Martin said.

Erie Family Health Center, a federally qualified health center with locations in and around Chicago, is the clinical partner in the study. Erie will enroll 220 patients between the ages of 5 and 16 who have uncontrolled asthma.

“Erie serves more than 3,000 children every year with an asthma diagnosis,” says Erie president and CEO Dr. Lee Francis. “In addition to being a scary condition for them and their families, it also impacts children’s ability to succeed in school, their self-esteem, and their willingness to participate in sports and other activities. We are pleased to be partnering in research that will get us closer to identifying best practices for managing this debilitating condition.”

Families will receive intervention for a year and be followed for another year to determine if the intervention has lasting effects. Information on asthma control, medication use, asthma triggers, emergency room use and hospitalizations will be collected.

Costs associated with the intervention, and any subsequent medical expenses, will also be tracked.

“We are very interested in the potential cost savings associated with both certified asthma instructors and community health workers,” said Martin. “Both may take an important role in health care reform, and health care systems need to know what to expect.” Martin’s research is administered by the UIC Institute for Health Research and Policy and the UI Health department of pediatrics is the primary holder of the grant.

The University of Illinois at Chicago, one of the top 60 research universities in the United States, is Chicago’s largest university and one of the nation’s most diverse. Deeply committed to its urban mission, UIC is a leader in teaching, research, clinical practice and outreach aimed at eliminating disparities in health, education and economic opportunity. Its 15 colleges include the nation’s largest college of medicine and six other health sciences colleges, as well as regional health science campuses in Peoria, Rockford, Urbana-Champaign and the Quad Cities.

Erie Family Health Centerfounded on Erie Street in Chicago in 1957, is a community health center that provides compassionate, health care services. Serving more than 63,000 medical patients and 9,500 dental patients via 250,000 visits at 13 centers throughout the city and surrounding suburbs, Erie delivers high-quality, culturally-competent, bi-lingual, comprehensive primary medical and dental care that responds to the needs of each community. Erie’s highly skilled providers, innovative partnerships and forward-thinking approach make it a national leader for the provision of community-based health care.

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