Finnish Diplomat Visits Harlem Health Center

By Jeff Mays on September 22, 2011 7:34am | Updated on September 23, 2011 6:40am

Consul General of Finland in New York Ritva Jolkkonen and Director General of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health Päivi Sillanaukee get a tour of Hamilton Heights from Thomas Lunke, director of planning and development for the Harlem Community Development Corporation.
Consul General of Finland in New York Ritva Jolkkonen and Director General of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health Päivi Sillanaukee get a tour of Hamilton Heights from Thomas Lunke, director of planning and development for the Harlem Community Development Corporation.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM—Finland is consistently ranked as one of the best places to live in the world. With high income and educational levels, the country of 5.4 million people is regarded as a leader in everything from child education to gender equality.

But on Wednesday, the Consul General of Finland in New York and a high-ranking member of the country's Ministry of Social Affairs and Health were at Heritage Healthcare Center in Harlem to learn about the role health care can play in uplifting a community.

"Heritage is demonstrating that you can serve the people most in need," said Dr. John Cardwell, a member of Heritage's board of directors.

"Many of our clients are the mentally ill, homeless and minorities. If we can serve that population, you can serve anyone.

Consul General of Finland in New York Ritva Jolkkonen and Director General of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, Päivi Sillanaukee, learned about HIV/AIDS treatment at the center and visited programs designed to help those coming from prison transition back into society, the opthamolagy clinic and Pre-K classes.

"It is very encouraging to see the primary health care setting include multi-professional teams," said Sillanaukee. Nordic countries have been meeting to work on new models to promote health, and Finland is examining the use of arts and culture to prevent drug use.

"It's not just about health care, it's also about housing and how individuals take part in education and culture," she added.

After visiting the health care center, the group visited the giant, recently revealed "Magic With Logic" mural on West 138th Street between Hamilton Place and Amsterdam Avenue and then toured the City College campus.

The group was in town for the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. Finland’s new Minister of Health and Social Services, Maria Guzenina-Richardson, specifically requested the visit to Harlem. She fell ill just before the trip and was unable to travel to the United States.

"They wanted to see best practices and what they can modify in their own country based on what is working here," said Curtis Archer, president of the Harlem Community Development Corporation which helped arrange the visit.

At the U.N., Finland was involved in meeting with other nations on ways to prevent non-communicable diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and mental illness.

"A lot of their questions revolved around how we do things and the whole notion of trying to prevent people from going to the emergency room. They have a strong emphasis on preventative health," said Dr. Alvaro Simmons, director of Heritage Health

At Heritage, the Finnish delegation asked about the equitable distribution of healthcare funds and how the clinic was dealing with privacy issues while transitioning to electronic medical records.

They wanted to know about the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Harlem and how long it would take for someone at the clinic diagnosed with breast cancer to receive surgery, if necessary.

"It was good to have this visit because it complimented well with the United Nations delegation meetings," said Jolkkonen.

Sirpa Sarlio-Lahteenkorva, an adviser to Finland's Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, said Finland, like the United States, is battling obesity. Unlike the United States, Finland has made some progress in slowing obesity rates.

Sarlio-Lahteenkorva said seeing the clinic not far from the Hamilton Heights Historic District showed how health can effect everything from the economy to housing.

"We are promoting things outside of the health system to promote healthy living," she said. "We try to think about health every time we make a decision."

Thomas Lunke, director of planning and development for the Harlem Community Development Corporation, served as a guide for the walking tour. He said the visit is a sign of how Harlem is viewed around the world.

"They said this has given them insight on how to plan a new vision that combines health with the economy and culture," said Lunke. "It's great that people from different cultures are interested with what's going on here in Harlem."

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