Hooper: Focus on wellness drives WellCare director

Dr. Traci Ferguson
Dr. Traci Ferguson
Published November 22 2016
Updated November 23 2016

Somewhere between various stints at hospitals around the state, Dr. Traci Ferguson began to contemplate how best to help patients.

Ferguson, who joined WellCare in 2010 and now serves as WellCare's chief medical director for medical management, came to the realization that managed health care might help her have a larger impact.

"I saw that I was helping one-on-one but I was only helping as many people as I could see in that day," said Ferguson, who holds a bachelor's degree from Georgetown University, a doctor of medicine degree from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a master's degree in business administration from Howard University.

"Moving to WellCare, since we focus on the same members I took care of in the hospital — Medicaid, low income and sometimes those that didn't have insurance — I'm able to help with our policies. And because we're in so many different states, I'm helping so many more people."

The help comes in trying to assist WellCare members by promoting the importance of preventive health care. With a team of care managers and health coaches, WellCare's efforts go beyond encouraging doctor visits and aim to raise awareness.

The company even has a community assistance line (866-775-2192) to help anyone — not just members — connect to social services including financial, food, education and utility assistance, transportation, disability and homeless services, support groups and child care.

Sometimes basic needs supersede a focus on health.

In her role, Ferguson, 42, oversees much of the education and awareness effort, and the company maintains a specific focus on diabetes. She serves on the Tampa Bay Community Leadership Board of the American Diabetes Association, and earlier this month, the company announced its employees and the WellCare Community Foundation teamed to raise more than $110,000 to support the 2016 American Diabetes Association's Step Out Walk to Stop Diabetes.

Ferguson said diabetes affects a number of WellCare members as well as its employees, family members and friends. The employees raised more than $75,000 of the total, no doubt because they were personally inspired.

Personal inspiration also drives Ferguson. In 2013, her brother died at age 35 of complications from Type 2 diabetes. She found frustration in efforts to help. Unable to work, he struggled with getting good insurance. Obese, he also struggled to change his eating and lifestyle.

It's not an uncommon story. More than 29 million Americans live with diabetes and 86 million live with prediabetes. As many as one in three U.S. adults could have diabetes by 2050.

And it's preventable.

"At the end, my brother was finally at peace," Ferguson said. "But that doesn't need to happen. There are things that can be done and you need to do it together."

Of course, Ferguson recognizes that for many WellCare members — the company focuses primarily on Medicare and Medicaid populations — making the necessary changes proves difficult even when they have the will.

"It's always cheaper to go and buy these processed, high-sugar foods than to have access to vegetables and fruits," Ferguson said. "If you look at the places that have a dollar menu, if you have a limited amount of money, and that's what's in your neighborhood, that's where you're going to go. There's no fresh market in a lot of areas."

Helping WellCare members find success in eating healthier and exercising more spurs Ferguson each and every day. It even bleeds over into her personal life. She recently overheard her son lecturing friends about the amount of sugar in Gatorade.

With Thanksgiving over, Ferguson said it's important to bounce back from a big day of eating with a focus on portion control, eating more fruits and vegetables, and mixing in workouts. Even a post-meal walk can be of benefit.

"I talk to my team and I say, 'If you're able to talk to somebody whether it's just listening to them, pointing them in the right direction or just encouraging them, you've had a great day," Ferguson said.

Let's hope more great days lie ahead for everyone trying to get healthier. For those trying to help family members eat better and exercise more, don't call it nagging, call it love.

That's all I'm saying.