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Improving Parkinson’s outcomes in rural Michigan

A woman with parted black hair, wearing a black sweater over a red top, fills out paperwork with a man in a T-shirt and cap at a diamond-patterned folding table.
A researcher from Jamie Haines’ Parkinson’s Research Project completes assessment forms with one of their volunteers.

A better life is possible for people with Parkinson’s disease, according to a Central Michigan University faculty member. One of the biggest obstacles is providing patients with the information on how to make this happen.

Strengthening connections between patients and support networks is critical, says Jamie Haines, associate professor in the Physical Therapy Program.

“Creating relationships is really what this is about,” Haines said. Relationships lead to trust. Trust can build a bridge to a better life where resources would otherwise be lacking.

Haines and four graduate students are completing a year-long project to determine whether creating support networks in rural communities increases patients’ confidence in their ability to manage symptoms. The more rural a community is, the more likely it is to suffer from a lack of resources.

“Access to experts is quite a challenge,” she says.

Most people with Parkinson’s disease who live in rural communities receive their care for the disease from their general health care provider. These providers are more easily accessible, but also provide care for a wide range of health conditions in their communities, Haines said.

People with Parkinson’s need more. They need a team that includes physical, speech and occupational therapists and specialists in movement disorders

“Research shows that people with Parkinson’s need a team,” she said. Those teams simply don’t exist in rural areas.

They worked with patients in Mount Pleasant, Alpena and Houghton to determine whether a support network from outside the area could develop trust to help patients do things that lead to better lives.

The first piece provides information on the best ways to slow the disease, she said. One of the most effective is regular exercise.

“Exercise is one of the best things for Parkinson’s patients,” said Lachane’ Ballard, one of Haines’ students. It is also crucial that medications and dosages are correct.

The Haines team met with patients three times a year. During those meetings, they assessed the patient’s balance, walking ability and strength. They provided patients with assessment reports and strategies on how to improve.

It’s a bit early to draw broad conclusions from the study, Haines said. Because Parkinson’s disease is progressive, people’s conditions worsen over time.

For Ballard, the work has given her invaluable experience working with people with Parkinson’s. She hopes to be able to incorporate that into her work after graduating in May next year.

This fulfills one of Haines’ secondary goals: increasing resources in rural communities by encouraging young caregivers to work in them.

Even though it’s too early to draw conclusions about what a good support network should look like or how it should be funded, Ballard said there was one benefit for the researchers.

“It’s nice to be able to see our positive impact on them,” she said.