Online 'Health Shack' Houses Homeless Teens' Medical Records

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(Sacramento, CA)
Wednesday, June 3, 2009

15-year-old Kevin Johnson’s talking to his friends at a Sacramento area homeless shelter for teenagers, the WIND Youth Center. He has the kind of face you want to pinch -- soft eyes and he’s quick to smile. But he also has those teenager qualities…like not really paying attention to what makes him sick. Here’s Johnson trying to explain his health condition to me:

Johnson: “I’m very allergic to carbohydrates, just any food mostly, I get sick very easily."
Weiss: "Do you have celiac disease?"
Johnson: "I do not know, I just know it’s on my card."
Weiss: "Are you allergic to gluten?"
Johnson: "I don’t know what gluten is.”
Now imagine that happening in an emergency situation at a hospital like Johnson experienced when he was recently homeless for three years. Johnson, his mom and brother couldn’t keep track of all of their papers. That included immunization and school records and other important documents. Several times he says he had bad reactions to medicine because the doctors didn’t know what he was allergic to.

“My mom got in a few altercations with the doctors, cause they didn’t, they was like injecting me with stuff that made me sick, I think I got a shot that made my arm swell up, cause I didn’t have my records, didn’t have no kind of information because we lost it all.”
But now Johnson and other teens at WIND are trying to fix this problem. With help, they’ve developed a grant-funded Web site called Health Shack. It went live just last month. Health Shack stores records on the web that can be hard to keep track of when you’re homeless.

A volunteer public health nurse at the center, Kim Whitney, says that’s the key. She says these kids face a slew of issues – for example they’re at much higher risk for psychiatric and sexual health complications.

“Either running out of medication, or lack of medication. A high number of sexually active teens that have many misconceptions and misunderstanding of how you get pregnant. So a lot of it is referrals for pregnancy testing and to get them on some kind of protection” 
Whitney says she’s enrolled more than 70 people in the free program. Here’s how it works. Whitney takes their medical history and enters it in the online database. The teens then get an ID card to access that information on the Internet, from anywhere. And they can give doctors or health care providers permission to look at and add to the file. These are called Personal Health Records or e-records. Whitney says for a homeless kid in constant chaos it can be more than just a record.

“So once they sit down and we start talking they get kind of intrigued and energized about having their life in a safe place.” 
One person interested in the concept is Dr. Chris Longhurst. He oversees the electronic medical record effort at the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford. He says there are some challenges associated with Health Shack, such as privacy protection and maintaining funding. But he says the broad scope of the project is impressive.

“It’s more than just medical information for example, it’s a place to store emergency contact information, birth certificates, school records, immunization history, etc, and these are the things that are really tough to access particularly for homeless youth.” 
Back at WIND…Kevin Johnson says this program will make his life easier. He’s happy that if he eats something he’s not supposed to, and ends up at the doctor again, he’ll actually have a medical record.

“Health Shack has helped me to like put my information on a card just in case it happens, like I ate like a whole bunch of French fries, I would pass out or something, I get sick, they can help me.”
Health Shack’s $125,000 Sierra Health Foundation grant runs out in January. Supporters are hoping success in its first year will help them secure additional funding.