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Verizon gift helps keep doctors, patients connected between visits

By Allyson Bird
Office of Development and Alumni Affairs

Hector Chocobar noticed a change in himself. He seemed sluggish, yet his body felt like it was speeding up. A musician and pastor, he felt drained after a single song.

His friend, medical translator Judith Rundbaken, noticed the change, too. She saw Chocobar’s bloodshot eyes and his agitation. Recognizing that language stood as a barrier between her friend and the medical care that he needed, Rundbaken recommended that he come down to the Medical University of South Carolina for a study funded by the Verizon Foundation.

Hector Chocobar checks his blood pressure
Hector Chocobar checks his blood pressure with a cuff provided through the Verizon Foundation's grant to the MUSC College of Nursing.

Program manager Brenda Brunner-Jackson took his blood pressure reading. “Well, it's not such good news for you," she said. "But it’s good news for us: You are the right person."

Chocobar’s blood pressure reading came in at 185 over 120, considerably higher than the optimal reading of 120 over 80 and crossing into the realm of severe hypertension. Chocobar, a 51-year-old father, knew the problem. He had moved to North Charleston seven years ago from Argentina, where beef, bread and pasta dominate the native diet.

“It was very hard for me, because I’m not very disciplined,” Chocobar said. “I love all types of meat.”

His bad eating habits, coupled with a language barrier to health care, made Chocobar a prime candidate for help. The Verizon Foundation recently provided the MUSC College of Nursing with a $46,000 grant for the Smartphone Management of Hypertension and Diabetes Program. The program provides smartphone-connected electronic medication trays and blood pressure cuffs to patients, primarily minorities who live in rural areas.

The project falls under the Verizon Foundation’s $15 million investment in technology to improve health care in communities where Verizon employees work and live. South Carolina ranks among the states with the highest incidence of diabetes, hypertension and stroke. Through the grant, residents get trays that not only store their daily medications but that provide a series of reminders for when to take them.

The alerts begin with a blinking light. If the patient doesn’t take the medication from its compartment within a half-hour, a chime alert follows. After another half-hour, the patient receives an automated call. On the rare occasion that the call fails, Brunner-Jackson and Rundbaken receive automated calls and then personally contact the patient.

Medication trays and blood pressure cuffs connected to smartphones provide faster, more thorough care to minority patients with diabetes and hypertension. The service is made possible through grant funding from the Verizon Foundation.

Both the trays and the blood pressure cuffs transmit health data to a secure computer server. Patients receive personalized motivational messages, based on their success with the program. Their physicians receive weekly progress reports.

Dr. Frank Treiber, Professor of Nursing and Medicine, pointed out the widespread appeal, given that nearly 94 percent of adults have cell phones, and that almost half of those cell phone users own smartphones that could work with this technology.

“What we’re able to do is help patients manage their health care more effectively,” Treiber said. “Doctors provide input on what patients should be doing. Patients provide input on how they would like to go about meeting those goals and what motivates them to become healthier. Summary reports help doctors to intervene faster in treatment, rather than the typical approach of waiting until the next scheduled clinic visit, three or six months later. We can get those patients to the right dose faster.”

Treiber also noted that regular monitoring prevents a patient from gaining weight or not taking his medication and winding up in the emergency room. The next step, he said, is to ensure that patients continue with their programs for years and not just months.

These days Chocobar eats beef sparingly, and he cut bread, salt and soft drinks from his diet altogether. He monitors portion size and noticed some new changes in himself. He sings an entire set and feels fine, even reaching for higher notes than before. He had to buy a new wardrobe full of slimmer pants, and he looks at self-discipline much differently now.

“It’s not a sacrifice. It’s just taking care of my own health,” Chocobar said. “This program is excellent, but if we do not take proper care, there is no program that will help us.”