Monday, January 25, 2010

Delta doctor using Iranian idea for rural health aid

A Mississippi Delta doctor is looking to an unusual place for a solution to the rural health care crisis: Iran. Dr. Aaron Shirley, right, who has spent his career serving the Delta's rural poor, visited Iran in May to study "a low-cost rural healthcare delivery system that, according to the World Health Organization, has helped cut infant deaths by 70 percent over the last three decades," Bob Drogin reports for the Los Angeles Times. (Times photo by Carolyn Cole)

The Delta has the nation's highest infant mortality rate. While Iran and health care rank as two of the most controversial political topics, Shirley and a colleague are in Washington today to ask for funding to open an Iranian-style "health house" in in 15 Delta communities. Both the U.S. and Iranian government have given quiet support to the little-known initiative, Drogin reports. Mississippi ranks at or near the bottom of most major health care indexes. "The system is broken," Shirley told Drogin. "It's time to try something new."

Iran's 7,000 health houses serve essentially as rural medical outposts staffed by community health workers, Drogin reports. The Mississippi plan calls for "training nurses' aides in each community, and then sending them door to door to help with basic needs," Drogin writes. Health workers would refer patients to clinics or hospitals for more advanced care and follow up with home visits.

The ongoing political struggle between the two countries remains an obstacle. "People will be skeptical at first because of Iran," said Paula Lang, chief nursing officer at Patients' Choice Medical Center of Humphreys County, told Drogin. "But I think they will embrace the concept when they see how it works." Erleen Smith, an 80-year-old retired Delta cotton worker, told Drogin: "I ain't never heard of Iran. But we could sure use somebody's help." (Read more)

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