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January 2007 Issue

Edwa Yocum, a participant in the Fernald Medical Monitoring Program, has her blood drawn by Teresa Ramirez. Yocum is one of many adults who have benefited from the screening program.
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Fernald Screening Program Improves Patient Survival, Overall Health

By Amanda Harper
Published January 2007

Sixteen years after the launch of the United States’ first and largest legally mandated comprehensive medical monitoring program, UC researchers believe that people residing near the former Fernald uranium processing plant in southwest Ohio are living longer and enjoying healthier lifestyles compared with the general population.

Study epidemiologist Susan Pinney, PhD, says adult participants in the Fernald Medical Monitoring Program (FMMP)—both men and women—lowered their cholesterol and blood pressure while participating in the program. Overall death rates as well as disease-specific deaths were also lower than expected, compared with general population statistics.

Researchers attribute this phenomenon to the holistic design of the screening program.

“From the very beginning, the philosophy behind this program was to improve participants’ health in any way we could, so we screened for exposure-related diseases as well as general health issues,” explains Robert Wones, MD, program medical director. “Our initial study results show that this program really has made a difference in the health of the Fernald community.

“We weren’t just screening for diseases related to environmental exposures,” adds Wones. “We implemented a full-scale preven-tive health program centered on early disease detection and healthy lifestyles, so everyone would benefit.”

In 1984, a federal investigation revealed National Lead of Ohio’s Feed Materials Production Center in Fernald was emitting dangerous levels of uranium dust and gases into the surrounding communities. The FMMP was established in 1990 as the result of a $73 million class-action lawsuit against National Lead of Ohio and the U.S. Department of Energy on behalf of the people living near the plant.

Although voluntary, the community response to the monitoring program was overwhelming.

“The court originally requested proposals for a screening program that would include about 1,000 people and we responded with a proposal for 3,000 just to be safe,” recalls Wones. “We were pleasantly surprised when 11,000 people applied for the program and 9,500 ended up enrolling. It took three years to complete the initial round of testing.”

Each eligible participant received a comprehensive medical exam every two to three years, with a personalized two-page report detailing any follow-up recommendations for medical care. Participants also got copies of all test results, which could include blood tests for cholesterol, liver and kidney function, chest X-rays, mammograms and results from other cancer screenings.

Barbara Steele, a nearby resident who worked at the Great Rivers Girl Scout Council camp adjacent to the Fernald plant, says the medical monitoring program made a huge difference in her life.

“When the program started, I didn’t have the time, financial resources or health insurance to seek treatment, so I was really stuck,” she recalls. “The program staff took an active interest in my personal health needs and linked me to the resources I needed to make my health a priority.”

FMMP researchers and clinicians say public health screening programs must focus on follow-up to be successful.

“Patients had ownership of their own health information,” explains Wones, “so they felt accountable to make changes in their lives that would improve their long-term health.”

The message, usually delivered by what Pinney jokingly calls “nag nurses,” got through. Today, more than 50 percent of the original program participants are still getting regular exams. Nationwide, public health programs only retain about 30 percent of participants for the duration of screening.

Diligent cancer screening exams, aggressive patient follow-up and health education were cornerstones of the program—and the medical staff took those tenets very seriously. In fact, several nurses were employed specifically to monitor each patient’s follow-up health recommendations and ensure that follow-up care happened.

“Our goal was to make sure patients understood the long-term importance of good overall health,” says nurse and program coordinator Jenny Buckholz, “while also helping them establish a pattern of healthful living that includes a good diet and regular exercise.”

Final-round screening exams are currently available at the FMMP clinic, located at Mercy Hospital in Fairfield. For eligibility information or to schedule an appointment, call (513) 860-0891.

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