The Baton Rouge Health District has kickstarted an initiative to identify health care needs in north Baton Rouge, a project billed as a first step toward increasing access to primary and preventive care in the underserved community.

Working with an arm of Blue Cross and Blue Shield, the district is reviewing data to help determine the community’s greatest health care needs and the options available for meeting them.

“The Blue Cross Institute has a mapping tool and 25-plus data sets all over the country, some of which are publicly available and some are data they’ve purchased as an institute to better inform community health care needs and recommendations,” said Suzy Sonnier, executive director of the Health District. “We’re also working to make sure we have the most extensive local information available.”

The data assessment will allow the Health District to map where medical providers are located, the hours they’re open, the types of insurance they accept and the prevalence of diseases such as diabetes to find gaps in services, Sonnier said. The district can then overlay that data with information about transportation routes as well as flood inundation maps to decipher the community’s current access needs.

“People talk about food deserts,” Sonnier said, referring to areas where it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food. “This data will help us identify primary care provider deserts.”

Healthcare in north Baton Rouge has been a hot-button topic in recent years. Residents have complained about the lack of an emergency room in the area since Baton Rouge General Medical Center's ER was shuttered in 2015. That came after the 2013 closure of the public hospital Earl K. Long, with services shifted to Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center.

OLOL did open an urgent care and primary care center on Airline Highway, not far from where the longtime charity hospital stood. This fall, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced the state would invest $5.5 million to allow OLOL to build out an ER at that site.  

The assessment project will focus not on emergency care, but rather on the more general question of people's ability to get to a doctor.

The partnership with Blue Cross will give the Health District access to the expertise of the insurance company's data analysts, health economists and others concerned with the efficiency and effectiveness of health care systems.

Broderick Bagert, lead organizer for Together Baton Rouge, applauded the initiative, saying the Blue Cross data sets and mapping tool have the capabilities not only of illustrating that health outcomes are typically poor for underserved communities, but also pointing toward specific solutions.

“What they’re proposing with this north Baton Rouge health study is very compatible with the direction we’re moving in,” Bagert said.

He said it's a tool that can be used to figure out where and how many expansions of services are needed to effectively increase access.

Bagert cautioned, however, that the community doesn’t need another study that doesn’t lead to action.

“The problem is not just a lack of understanding about the problem. It’s a lack of access,” he said. “So just making sure this study is connected to the strategy around the (proposed north Baton Rouge) hospital services district, and expansion of primary care and others, is going to be one goal of ours.”

Sonnier said the Health District has had conversations with federally qualified health clinics in the Baton Rouge area that are interested in expanding services into north Baton Rouge.

“The key would be building access based on what the data says about where the greatest need is,” she said.

The Health District has been committed from the beginning to improving outcomes for all in the greater Baton Rouge community," Sonnier said.

“To do that, primary and preventive care is key,” she said.

That means fostering a healthy environment where people can walk and bike and get  exercise, she said, as well as making sure that people have a medical home where they can see a doctor on a regular basis, get assistance with chronic diseases and be educated about disease prevention.

Follow Heidi Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen.