Alarmed by continuing high blood pressure rates among blacks, a group of Anne Arundel County churches has set up blood pressure screening programs with the help of the county health department.
The department trains members of the 17 congregations to take blood pressures and pays for the program with $70,000 in federal grants. Each church coordinates its own program.
"The equipment is right in the churches," said health department nurse Patricia Klunk. "You don't have to wait for someone to come along. There's a trained person right there."
Health department studies have found that that heart disease is the No. 1 killer in Anne Arundel County. Last year, more than a quarter of the blacks admitted to hospitals suffered from hypertension.
That is why the health department focuses its 3-year-old program, Health Smart, at minority churches.
The blood pressure screenings are held one Sunday a month, usually after morning services. Congregation members take the blood pressure readings and distribute health and nutrition tips.
The procedure takes about two minutes. If a screener finds person's blood pressure is high, the person is asked to sit for a few minutes before having it taken again. If the blood pressure remains high, the person is referred to the community health center that works with the church or to the person's doctor.
Churches in the South County refer members to the Owensville Medical Center. Those in North County refer members to the North Arundel Hospital Professional Center.
The screeners receive about $20 every Sunday they do screening. Some keep the money, and others donate it to the church. Others don't accept money.
Ms. Klunk trains screeners once a year so that they can be state certified. The screeners must be retrained annually.
The health department began the program by sending trained volunteer screeners to family reunions and picnics in South County.
Department officials decided to expand the program to churches throughout the county when they saw the sense of community and support the screeners got when they took their blood pressure equipment to their own churches.
The program has been implemented in churches in North County, and the department has plans to extend it to Annapolis this year, Ms. Klunk said.
Asbury United Methodist Church on Asbury Drive in Severna Park was one of the first north of Annapolis to implement Health Start. The move came after an elderly member almost died because of high blood pressure because she didn't know she had it.
Last Sunday was a particularly busy day for screeners at Asbury, who were giving Giant Food coupon books for fruits and vegetables to anyone who got his blood pressure taken. The 200-member church averages 20 participants per Sunday, but 41 members asked to be tested Sunday.
"Some people want to keep it a secret, but really it's not a secret," said Leonard Hall, 59, as he got his pressure taken. "The way medicine is nowadays, if you let someone know what's wrong, they can help you."
The church's program is coordinated by Julia Howard, 60, a retired laboratory technician. Her sister, Vera Oden, 46, and Ms. Howard's daughter Marva Burley, 34, are the certified screeners.
Some church members "were standoffish at first. Whenever you have a new program, people don't want to participate because they don't know what it entails," Mrs. Howard said.
But people need to keep track of their blood pressure, said Christie Gasiorowski, a North Arundel Professional Center grant coordinator.
"A lot of people don't know they have high blood pressure," she said. "They feel it go up but just think they had a stressful day or something. We want to try to make them aware that there's plenty of options and places to go to learn about their blood pressure."