HealthShack: An online health resource for youth without roots

Part of the HealthShack team © UC Regents
Part of the HealthShack team (from left to right) Vivek Anand, youth ambassador, Melissa Binger, project manager, and Jasmine Edwards-Smith, youth ambassador, in front of the building that houses WIND Youth Services.

Posted April 7, 2010

While out shopping one day, Katie unexpectedly passed out. When paramedics arrived, they found she was carrying a HealthShack identification card, giving them immediate access to her health information — including the fact that she was pregnant — and allowing them to treat her quickly and appropriately.

After her brush with illness, Katie (not her real name) enthusiastically e-mailed HealthShack with gratitude.

“Thank you so much for that service,” she said. “It is a wonderful thing to offer!”

HealthShack is a cyber-health home base for youth who are homeless, in foster care or at risk for chronic unemployment, incarceration, drug use, or mental or other health issues because of a lack of education or other resources.

The HealthShack card that Katie was carrying linked her and health-care professionals to her health information via a secure, online Web portal. With just a personal identification number, participants instantly have access to accurate information about their immunization records and medications and complete health histories, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

A joint effort of UC Davis Children’s Hospital and local service organizations, including HealthShack pilot site WIND Youth Services, the program was started in 2009 by Elizabeth Miller, an assistant professor of general pediatrics at UC Davis Children’s Hospital, to help support the health-care needs of children in the Sacramento region who do not have permanent homes. (Read more in "Teen homeless organizations, UC Davis Children's Hospital collaborate to create 'HealthShack'" from Oct. 14, 2009.)

Miller says that HealthShack, as the only youth-driven, youth-controlled personal health-information system available in the country, "has the potential to assist young people who have been traditionally marginalized and disconnected, providing guidance on how to navigate various systems – including health care – and connecting them to relevant resources. It  encourages them to take control of their health and well-being.”

“I have been so moved by the energy and enthusiasm of the young people who designed HealthShack ... We are excited to embark on outreach and expansion to ensure that this tool is available to more youth.”
— Elizabeth Miller

After nearly a year of active enrollment, HealthShack now has more than 150 participants. So far, in a word, the program is “phenomenal,” said Melissa Binger, HealthShack’s project manager and an advocate at WIND Youth Services, which provides shelter for homeless teens and offers guidance and resources in order to help them move from crisis to healthy, independent lives.

The program’s first two phases laid the foundation by seeking and securing additional funding and putting the finishing touches on the Web site. Next, phase three will focus on informing the broader community of the service’s value. HealthShack will be officially presented on May 18 at an invitation-only event for leaders of community organizations who may be interested in offering the program. 

“The ultimate goal is to open up HealthShack not just to those involved with WIND, but to group homes, former and emancipated youth, probation youth and so on,” Binger said. “We want to empower youth and let them have a safe place to put documents.”

A secure place for health histories

Because it is Web-based, HealthShack can hold “as many participants as we can reach,” says Jasmine Edwards-Smith, 17, one of the ambassadors who helped create and develop the Web site and stayed involved as peer advocates, encouraging others to take advantage of HealthShack. The program is generally targeted toward the teen and young adult population — about ages 16-22 — but can extend beyond those ages as needed.

UC Davis Children’s Hospital

Doctor with pediatric patient © UC RegentsUC Davis Children’s Hospital is a world-class pediatric hospital devoted to the health of babies, children and adolescents. With over 120 physicians in 33 pediatric subspecialties, the children’s hospital is the most comprehensive pediatric hospital in the Sacramento region, offering compassionate, family-centered care in a healing environment.

Click here to learn more.

The password-protected Web site is “as secure as a bank’s,” says Binger — no small thing, because the information it houses can include health conditions, symptoms and family medical history to current medications, lab reports and even religious preferences, which may play a factor in treatment. The health histories are developed by two full-time nurses.

HealthShack members also can allow access to the information by individuals and groups, such as UC Davis Health System or Planned Parenthood. Many of these fields can be selected to appear on an individual's identification card.

Other secured pages allow members to list their education, diplomas and work history, from which they can design resumes. Perhaps most important for foster kids, there’s a page to list former residences.

 As with any start-up program, there have been roadblocks. One in particular is the issue of contact information.

“What’s the most efficient way to schedule an appointment for kids?” Binger said. “How do you reach the kids when they don’t have contact information?” This is typically handled on a case-by-case basis.

A community resource by youth, for youth

In keeping with its pledge to be a community resource, the public face of HealthShack features legal information, fun videos and a weekly blog by the ambassadors who discuss social and health issues such as stress, smoking and texting while driving, and world events such as the Haiti earthquake.

The Resource Wheel features resources serving homeless youth and those in foster-care or child-protective systems in Sacramento County. This is where HealthShack ambassadors are particularly hard at work.

“We’re going to these organizations to make sure they’re youth-friendly,” Jasmine says. “Lots of places say they are, but you walk in and they’re cold, not personal. Kids want to feel welcome. If you’re a teen mom and need someplace to sleep, you can look up places that accept moms and kids.”

Teen member accessing HealthShack Web site © UC Regents
HealthShack is the nation's only youth-driven, youth-controlled online personal health information system.

That these organizations are approved by HealthShack’s own ambassadors is critical to developing trust with members, who need to feel secure that personal information – particularly medical information – is kept safe, secure and confidential. The youth-oriented aspect, Binger stresses, is what makes HealthShack different – and successful.

“Many places may consult young people at their start-up but, after that, they’re primarily adult-run,” she says. “HealthShack is by youth, for youth. They are in the trenches, doing amazing things.”

One year in, Miller is as enthusiastic as ever about HealthShack’s promise.

“I have been so moved by the energy and enthusiasm of the young people who designed HealthShack, the staff at WIND – including the dedicated group of nurses – our community partners, our funders (Sierra Health Foundation and United Pacific Care) and our technology partners,” she says. “We are excited to embark on outreach and expansion to ensure that this tool is available to more youth.”