What is EmPower doing in SCHOOLS?

By R. Mack Harrell, MD, FACP, FACE

The EmPower School Outreach Program was started by Dr. Donald Bergman, past President of the American Association of Endocrinologists (AACE). The program is designed to teach children in the 5th, 6th and 7th grades about the benefits of healthy eating and daily physical activity. The idea originally was to get health professionals (endocrinologists, primary care physicians, nurses and health educators) into our middle schools to help teachers make an impact on the problems of childhood obesity and diabetes. Now anyone can get involved. To learn more about the school program visit www.EmPowerYourHealth.org/empower-school-program. In particular, AACE intends for the EmPower School Outreach Program to target ethnic minority schools, where the risk for diabetes is higher and where preventive measures are more likely to make a difference.

As a practicing Endocrinologist in South Florida, I was recently able to lead a EmPower program at the Lauderhill Middle School in Fort Lauderdale. I hope that my experience may be informative for anyone with an interest in prevention programs for children. I was able to arrange our program through the Lauderhill Health Clinic, which is run by Broward Health, my employer. The Lauderhill Clinic sits on the property of Lauderhill Middle School, 100 yards from the school’s back door. Through my contacts at the Health Clinic, I was able to obtain a security pass to spend 2 hours in Lauderhill Middle with nurse Adi Kogler and Broward Health administrator Lori Kessler.

Our first appointment was with Mrs. Mary Diggs’ morning health class. The class had 35 Hispanic and African American middle schoolers from Fort Lauderdale. When I asked if anybody in the class had a relative with diabetes, nearly every hand went up. Most students had seen family members give insulin and prick their fingers to measure blood sugar. In short, the diabetes epidemic had already struck the families of students at Lauderhill Middle School.

The students were bright and happy to learn. Mrs. Diggs made sure that classroom behavior was carefully controlled. After the nutrition and physical activity slide show was completed, I had the students stand and dance to my rap tune “Get Fit (see lyrics on page 24).” This desk-side movement was well-received and is an example of how kids can be active even when they are indoors.

Later in the morning, we did a second program in the school’s media center. The attendance at the second program was much larger with more than 150 students and teachers. I noticed that one of the students from Mrs. Diggs’ class had returned for a second look at the presentation after lunch. So, I decided to test him. I asked him what he had eaten for lunch. He smiled and said: “Pepperoni pizza and chocolate milk!” At this point, I realized that this prevention program might be a lot tougher than I had realized. The library session was tough because of trying to keep the large number of students focused.

In summary, I believe that there is a real need for endocrinology doctors, nurses, and health educators to bring the diabetes and obesity prevention message to our middle schools. But this message should be delivered in the larger context of school reform. Without schools that offer physical education on a daily basis and healthy food choices for lunch, all the slide shows and well-intentioned rap tunes in the world will not change student behavior. The time has come for American educators to practice what we preach and to “show” instead of just “telling.”

EmPower is about changing human behavior. We need to enlist politicians, school administrators and parents to help health professionals get the prevention message to our children. If you are a parent with obesity or diabetes, you are able to reach out to children better than anyone else. Go back to school and teach kids that these are preventable diseases. If you have a school in mind or new ideas regarding the development of a program in your community, don’t hesitate to contact EmPower at www.EmPowerYourHealth.org/contact.

R. Mack Harrell, MD, FACP, FACE, graduated with Phi Beta Kappa and AOA honors from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He completed a three-year residency in Internal Medicine at the University of Minnesota, followed by a clinical and research fellowship in Endocrinology at Duke University. He was recruited by the Cleveland Clinic Florida in 1991 and became their first Chief of Endocrinology. In 1999, Dr. Harrell became the Director of Metabolic Outcomes for the North Broward Hospital District in Fort Lauderdale where he has practiced endocrinology for the past 10 years and is the acting Medical Director for the North Broward Diabetes Center.