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Local 'Champions of Change in Medicine' recognized

GREENVILLE, N.C.   (Aug. 3, 2006)   —   An East Carolina University physician who's led efforts to deliver health care to underserved populations and a program to help children manage their asthma have received a statewide honor.

Dr. Thomas G. Irons, ECU associate vice chancellor for regional health services and a professor of pediatrics at the Brody School of Medicine at ECU, and Pitt County Memorial Hospital's pediatric asthma management program have each been named as a "North Carolina Champion of Change in Medicine."

"I'm of course honored, but mostly thankful to have so many great people to work with," Irons said. "I don't feel like I have done this myself, but that I have been privileged to help bring institutions and the community together around the health needs of our neighbors. I believe deeply that one must lead from the posture of service and am especially grateful to East Carolina University for making it possible for me to serve in this way."

Irons, who heads the Eastern Carolina Community Health Consortium, has worked with individuals and organizations, including PCMH, to look for ways to address the needs of people in Pitt County who lack health insurance, access to health care or both. One result of those efforts exists today as HealthAssist, a project that started after Hurricane Floyd in 1999 made obvious many shortcomings in health care access in eastern North Carolina. HealthAssist provides primary care for uninsured residents of Pitt County using volunteer and paid providers. In addition, enrollees receive care coordination, access to affordable therapeutic drugs, links to social services, mental health care, computer skills courses, GED classes and other training.

Another project Irons has led is the 15,000-square-foot, $2.8 million James D. Bernstein Community Health Center under construction north of Greenville. There, full-time and volunteer health care professionals will provide primary care, dental care and pharmacy services for low-income people in Pitt and surrounding counties. Irons estimated the center will see 20,000 patients annually within five years. The center will also host educational programs involving ECU and Pitt Community College.

PCMH's pediatric asthma program began in the mid-1990s as a way to help children learn how to manage their asthma to reduce school absences and emergency department visits due to asthma attacks. The program has been funded by the hospital and The Duke Endowment. Three case managers work with children through the program.

Since the program began, more than 2,200 children have been seen, inpatient hospital admissions of pediatric asthma patients have fallen 71 percent, inpatient costs for pediatric asthma patients have dropped 56 percent and emergency department visits by pediatric asthma patients have fallen by 22 percent. Anecdotal evidence says school absences have also been reduced, said Lisa Johnson, who oversees the program.

Irons was interviewed July 26 on the UNC-TV program "North Carolina Now." An interview with Johnson or another representative of the pediatric asthma program will air on an upcoming edition of the program.

The Champions of Change was a statewide competition corresponding to the upcoming national PBS program, " Remaking American Medicine," slated to air in September. To parallel the profiles in the national series, UNC-TV, the state Area Health Education Centers, the North Carolina Institute of Medicine and the group Healthy Carolinians launched a statewide search for people making a difference in North Carolina health care. The NCIOM selected the winners from a slate of nominees.

More information about the Champions of Change project is available at


Contact: Doug Boyd | 252-744-2481