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Barb Oldenburger, left, and Sally Kelly sit in the office at UnityPoint Clinic in Evansdale. Oldenburger and Kelly volunteer with Social Determinants Advocates, SoDA, a new program that helps connect patients with resources for assistance.

WATERLOO — Sometimes life makes it hard to be healthy.

There are times you need to see a doctor, but you don’t have transportation to an appointment; you can’t afford the prescribed medications, diagnostic tests or treatments; there’s no one at home to watch the kids; or you want to eat healthy but can’t afford to fill your grocery cart with healthier foods that may be more expensive.

You could order a SoDA.

No, it’s not a soft drink. Social Determinants Advocates, or SoDA, is a pilot program offered to patients at UnityPoint Clinic. A patient who needs help finding community resources for food, transportation, child care and other issues affecting their health can ask to be referred to a SoDA volunteer.

These are navigators, not social workers, said Ruselle DeBonis, the program’s coordinator and coordinator for the UnityPoint Allen College Nurse Practitioner Education and ACE-SAP Free Clinic.

“The health-care system is complicated, and sometimes patients are not comfortable talking to a social worker, or able to do the research themselves and make connections,” said DeBonis. “SoDA volunteers can help them navigate through services that are available.”

The program’s mission statement includes “aiding health literacy, empowering patients through education, motivating them through positive relationships and reducing barriers and advocating for them as community and health care liaisons.”

There are three SoDA volunteers at UnityPoint Health on Prairie Parkway who have had more than 12 referrals since the program began Dec. 11, DeBonis said. At UnityPoint Clinic Family Medicine in Evansdale, SoDA volunteers Barb Oldenburger and Sally Kelly spend four hours each week assisting patients.

Both Oldenburger and Kelly are retired nurses. “I spent my career helping people, and this was the right opportunity at the right time,” said Oldenburger. She invited Kelly to join her. “I wanted to have some meaningful volunteer work and working with indigent and special needs’ patients appeals to me,” said Kelly.

Her experience as a nurse and instructor has taught her that “people do want to do the right thing, but they don’t have the resources to follow through. When we get a referral from the doctors, we talk to the patient, ask the right questions and help them find resources,” Kelly explained.

The program is an outgrowth of UnityPoint’s patient screening for poverty which began about 1 1/2 years ago, DeBonis said. “The screening can indicate that a patient is struggling financially, or may have issues about housing, transportation or food insecurity.”

Some patients don’t meet the criteria for being considered “at risk” in order to qualify for certain types of assistance. That’s one reason why postcards touting the new SoDA program are being handed out to patients at UnityPoint clinics. “Circumstances change. There could be a loss of income, the loss of a job,” DeBonis said. “Health care is not really good about evaluating those issues because the focus is on aspects of physical health. But research is showing that these social issues have a major impact on health outcomes,” she explained.

The program is funded through a grant. Volunteers participate in a four-week course and receive 12 hours of training. They are not required to have nursing, medical or social work backgrounds.

Participants are taught how to make assessments and to communicate with sensitivity to cultural issues — “not just ethnically, but how to talk to people in poverty. Priorities are different when you’re living in poverty,” DeBonis says. “Volunteers spend a lot of time learning and understanding what resources are available.”

SoDA volunteers also learn when they should refer a patient to a social worker or care coordinator.

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