What’s wrong with our community health centers?

As Kaiser Health News journalist Phil Galewitz studied data on the nation’s community health centers, the statistics compelled him to visit Georgia.

The overall national picture, published Wednesday in a KHN and USA Today story, is that hundreds of the nation’s nearly 1,200 federally funded community health centers fall short on major quality-of-care measures, according to the federal data analyzed by the news organizations.

The centers’ performance most often lagged behind national averages on helping diabetics keep their blood sugar under control and on screening women for cervical cancer, the article said.

But the statistics also showed that Georgia was the only state to rank near the bottom on four of the six quality measures reported by community health centers. The four measures are:

· Percentage of children who receive all seven federally recommended vaccines by age 2.

· Percentage of adults, ages 18 to 85, with hypertension who have their blood pressure under control.

· Percentage of low-birthweight babies.

· Percentage of women, ages 24 to 64, with at least one Pap test in the prior three years.

“It was a barometer that something was going on in Georgia,’’ Galewitz said Thursday in Atlanta, where he’s attending the Association of Health Care Journalists conference.

Georgians interested in health issues have become accustomed to such dreary statistics.

The state’s children have the second-highest obesity rate in the country. Our infant mortality is high, as are our rates of diabetes, cardiovascular deaths and infectious disease. One in five Georgian has no health insurance. Poverty rates are high.

Yet there are signs of hope.

A new Public Health Department has been formed, and the budget didn’t take cuts this year, unlike many previous years. Medicaid and PeachCare didn’t see reductions, either. The governor’s budget provides 400 new residency slots for physicians, to help ease the state’s physician shortage.

In addition, government and private programs are focusing on lowering the obesity rate. Immunizations, too, are drawing state action.

Duane Kavka, executive director of the Georgia Association of Primary Health Care, said Thursday that the 27 community health center organizations in the state are working to become ‘‘patient-centered medical homes.’’

“We’ve got to do better,’’ he said, when asked about the news organizations’ findings.

Kavka also noted that the patients who get services at the clinic are ‘‘a population that no one wants to see.’’

They’re generally poor, have chronic health conditions and have not seen a doctor in a long time, if ever.

And many, because of educational barriers, have picked up a lot of misinformation: Some patients, for instance, believe it’s inevitable that they will get diabetes because a parent has the condition.

“The Southeast is low when it comes to health statistics,’’ Kavka said.

But community health centers fill a major void, he added. “Where would we be if [the centers] didn’t exist? We’d be a heck of a lot worse off.’’

Galewitz visited four centers. Oakhurst Medical Center in Stone Mountain was spotlighted as scoring poorly in all six categories evaluated (including the percentage of adults with diabetes who have their blood sugar under control; and the percentage of pregnant women receiving prenatal care in the first trimester).

Here’s a link to the KHN video on Oakhurst.

Kavka noted Thursday that many of Oakhurst’s patients are refugees from other nations – and have never seen a physician before.

Galewitz also spotlighted TenderCare Clinic, a community health center in Greensboro. There, a medical assistant calls parents who are late bringing in kids for immunizations, women behind on getting their annual Pap tests, and diabetics who have neglected their monthly checkups, the KHN story said.

Health education coordinator Pamela Luke advises patients about nutrition, encourages them to set exercise goals and puts them through “diabetes school.’’

But the Greensboro center has trouble finding specialists and hospitals willing to provide surgery to its uninsured patients, a topic that Georgia Health News focused on in an article this week.

TenderCare has some of the best quality scores in Georgia, as does Albany Area Primary Health Care in South Georgia. Kavka also pointed out that West End Medical Centers in Atlanta performs very well.

Here’s a KHN/USA Today breakdown of the measurements for Georgia.

“There are other things we need to do to be more aggressive – on immunizations, for example,’’ Kavka said.

The goal is to bring all centers to the same high level in the quality measurements, he said.

The articles about Georgia’s problems, as unflattering as they are, may do some good, too. “For some people, maybe it’s a wakeup call,’’ Kavka said.