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Feature

Woman with elderly woman.

Kim Zemke (left) visits with "Warm Health" participant Bobbie Oslund.

Warm words in a phone call

School of Nursing introduces an automated telephone program that provides seniors with health-related tips

By Patricia Kelly

August 21, 2008

Once a day, 365 days a year, Kim Zemke places a call to 400 seniors. First she shares tips on how to stay healthy; then she asks them how they are feeling, if they took their medication, and if they found her health tips helpful.

And she does it all without picking up the phone.

Zemke is director of practice and business development at the University of Minnesota School of Nursing, but she also writes health tips for "Warm Health," an automated telephone program that provides seniors with prerecorded messages in three categories: nostalgia, spirituality, and wellness.

Zemke says she's happy to do all of her Warm Health work as a volunteer. "It's part of our community service," she says. "At our Center for Gerontological Nursing, which I am part of, we have a very strong commitment to research--and to the care of our elders."

"We wanted to do something meaningful with technology," says Warm Health founder Michael Lunzer. He and cofounder Tim Cameron launched the service in December 2006 with the goal of helping seniors stay healthy, happy, and independent. The nostalgic "Time Machine" segment provides news, music, and entertainment from the '40s and '50s; the spirituality segment offers messages of hope and comfort; and the "Warm Healthy Choices" wellness segment gives general health tips and allows the senior to record a report on his or her health that day, which is then shared with designated nurse case managers from the senior's health plan.

Zemke and Lunzer both say that computerized phone contact is a proven, effective way to communicate with seniors. Several years ago, Jean Wyman of the School of Nursing conducted Project TeleWalk, a 16-week study that focused on a walking program for seniors and measured the effectiveness of computerized telephone coaching. "We found that the computerized telephone intervention was just as effective as a nurse calling once a week or participants filling out daily exercise logs," says Wyman. "It was a feasible, acceptable way of motivating people."

"What Warm Health truly does is give seniors a daily information session on how to maintain their independence," says Zemke.

When Lunzer and Cameron decided to include health tips in Warm Health, they knew they needed the help of a credible, knowledgeable, and caring partner. They found just that when they met with Mary Jo Kreitzer, director of the Center for Spirituality and Healing and a professor with the School of Nursing.

"When Warm Health contacted me, I immediately thought of the School of Nursing," says Kreitzer. "Nurses are experts in health, health care, and wellness, and Kim not only had the technical knowledge and expertise but also the creativity and the entrepreneurial spirit that enabled her to work with a corporation in a unique way."

Zemke's health tips are communicated by a character called "Mary Beth." The voice is that of a professional "voice talent," but the personality is all Zemke. She shares her personal-life stories with her seniors--describing when she slipped on the rug and fell, sharing facts from articles she's read, and telling how sad she was when her dog died. "I really want them to get to know Mary Beth as a person," she says. "It makes it much nicer for them to connect."

Senior Bobbie Oslund says she looks forward to hearing from Mary Beth every morning at 10:15. "I know it's a tape," she says, "but it sounds like she's talking to me, personally." Oslund says she's interested in all of Mary Beth's topics. "It's always wonderful to gain more knowledge," she says.

"This is not rocket science," Zemke says. "We're not prescribing medicine or giving any diagnosis. What Warm Health truly does is give seniors a daily information session on how to maintain their independence." Zemke provides tips on subjects such as these: how to strengthen their leg muscles (to improve mobility); how to eat right and drink enough fluids; how to improve their memory; and how to make their home "fall-proof."

"It's very practical stuff," says Zemke. "But it's important because sometimes people just don't think about it."

One thing is certain: "Mary Beth" is a popular gal. Zemke tells of the time when Tim Cameron made her listen to a message from a senior: "This lady was so cute! She said she just loved Mary Beth! She just made me want to cry. And I thought, 'This really is a good thing.'"