Children’s Hospital Colorado sets out to weave medical and social supports to improve health

“We know this model is important. The pressure’s on to figure it out.”

Executive assistant April Herrera at the front desk on Dec. 5 of Resource Connect, where families can get help with food, housing and other challenges they might not think of as medical, but which affect health. (Donna Bryson/Denverite)

Executive assistant April Herrera at the front desk on Dec. 5 of Resource Connect, where families can get help with food, housing and other challenges they might not think of as medical, but which affect health. (Donna Bryson/Denverite)

Donna Bryson. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

It’s only been open a few months, so it’s unsurprising that the consulting room on the top floor of a new Children’s Hospital Colorado clinic building looks a bit bare.

Eve Kutchman has plans that don’t involve bringing in shiny medical machines. She envisions something homier, where visitors can feel as if they’re chatting around a friend’s kitchen table at the Healthy Roots Food Clinic.

Healthy Roots is just one element of a project that Kutchman, a lifestyle medicine specialist, is helping shape at the Children’s Colorado Health Pavilion at 860 N. Potomac Circle in Aurora. On the first three floors are the doctors, pharmacists, dentists and therapists families might expect when they seek health care. On the fourth and final floor is Resource Connect, where parents and children can get help with challenges they might not think of as medical, but which affect health.

Such as hunger. Beyond the consulting room for which Kutchman seeks a kitchen table, shelves are stocked with cans of vegetables and tuna and bags of rice and pasta. Refrigerators hold dairy products and meat. Fresh produce also is available. Families can stock up on groceries regularly at no cost and get dietary advice and cooking lessons at Healthy Roots.

“We’re basing it on the food as medicine model,” Kutchman said.

To get to Healthy Roots, turn to the right after you step off the elevator and into Resource Connect. To the left is a bright space where children can play and create while their parents head down a hall to talk, perhaps, to an attorney about a pending eviction. Or to get advice on keeping their homes warm in winter, signing up for food stamps or finding a good day care facility.

“If you are in health care and you’re interested in optimizing health, you can’t just look at the health care sliver,” said Annie Lee, executive director for community health and Medicaid strategies at Children’s Child Health Advocacy Institute.

Annie Lee at the Children's Colorado Health Pavilion on Dec.5, 2019. (Donna Bryson/Denverite) 

Annie Lee at the Children's Colorado Health Pavilion on Dec.5, 2019. (Donna Bryson/Denverite) 

Lee’s institute has for years surveyed families who come to Children’s for health care, getting a sense from them of the kinds of services Resource Connect needed to offer.

“We have a stream of information telling us where we need to prioritize,” Lee said.

A hospital needs partners to address the social issues that determine health. Lee’s institute has worked with schools, community groups, government departments, businesses and others to lobby on issues that affect the well-being of young people and to create programs to address such concerns. Those connections were useful in planning Resource Connect.

Among the organizations that send staff to consult with patients at Resource Connect are Early Childhood Partnership of Adams County, a nonprofit that can connect families to educational programs, and Energy Outreach Colorado, a nonprofit that helps homeowners pay the electricity bill, repair boilers and make renovations to improve energy efficiency. Food Bank of the Rockies and King Soopers help ensure Healthy Roots has fresh and nutritious food. Gary Community Investments and Children’s are among the financial supporters.

Resource Connect and the clinics below are located about a mile from the Anshutz medical campus where Children’s Hospital is located.  The Resource Connect team moved in early October into the Health Pavilion building after Children’s renovated it.

Lee estimates patients will make 150,000 visits a year to the building’s clinics. It’s unclear how many visits the top floor will get. Awareness is still being raised among both health care providers who are expected to make referrals to Resource Connect and among the families they treat.

“We just haven’t seen any pattern yet,” Lee said. “We’ve got days when it’s one family. We’ve got days when there’s a line out the door.”

Not every Resource Connect provider is available every day.  But Ileana Perez, a Children’s navigator, is always on hand to set up appointments for later. The food clinic is open eight hours a day, three days a week. If a hungry family comes when the pantry is closed, executive assistant April Herrera can offer an emergency supply of food and a King Soopers gift card.

Kutchman said the food clinic has had about 60 referrals so far, and 20 percent of those families did not make the trip to the fourth floor. Those that did learned they can visit six times in a year and on each visit get enough food to provide three meals a day for three days for up to six people.

Familes often are “shocked by how much food they’re going to get over a sustained period,” Kutchman said.

Kutchman and Lee said Resource Connect will grow and could be emulated by other hospitals.

“We know this model is important,” Kutchman said. “The pressure’s on to figure it out.”

Eve Kutchman at the Children's Colorado Health Pavilion on Dec.5, 2019. (Donna Bryson/Denverite) 

Eve Kutchman at the Children's Colorado Health Pavilion on Dec.5, 2019. (Donna Bryson/Denverite) 

Plans include adding a dietitian and a family finance adviser. One day, the project might accept referrals from throughout the Children’s system, which in addition to the main hospital in Aurora has facilities across metro Denver and in Colorado Springs and Pueblo.

“This is a brand new thing for us,” Lee said. “We’re learning as we go.”

Once winter is over, the fresh produce supply at Healthy Roots will be supplemented by vegetables from a community garden on the Anschutz campus. And Kutchman has been eyeing an empty lot nearer by.

“Who owns it?” she mused.  “We could put in a playground, a garden and some open space for kids to play.”

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