Northwell Health/Backstretch Employee Service Team (B.E.S.T.) Healthcare Clinic on the Belmont Park backstretch.
Morning training is winding down just as it starts to get busy on a routine Thursday at the Northwell Health/Backstretch Employee Service Team (B.E.S.T.) Healthcare Clinic on the Belmont Park backstretch.
First up are two annual physicals, one for a 56-year-old assistant trainer and the other for an exercise rider, a 20-year veteran of New York racetracks. Both men are run through a battery of tests and pronounced healthy, but not before the medical staff engage them in vigorous discussions about everything from their diets to diabetes prevention.
“Serving the backstretch is about a lot of things, from giving physicals to taking care of work-related injuries and being an advocate for healthy living,” said Dr. Margaret Donat, one of the four rotating Northwell physicians at the clinic. “But when you see somebody getting control of an issue like blood pressure or cholesterol, it’s important. I like to think we’re making a difference.”
Belmont Park’s 1,000-square-foot health care clinic goes back decades. But after the clinic closed for several months during the COVID-19 pandemic, it reopened last September under new management – this time, newly renovated, staffed with Northwell physicians, and fortified by what B.E.S.T. Executive Director Paul Ruchames described as a growing emphasis on healthy living and preventive care.
“This is real community medicine,” said Ruchames. “The clinic is here to deal with the injuries, which it has always done. But what we’re seeing are more people coming in for physicals, and more people interested in learning how to adopt a healthier lifestyle to keep more serious things from happening later.”
He referred to several new offerings for backstretch workers, just as live racing returns to Belmont Park for its spring/summer meet – starting with free screenings for breast and colon cancer and a new mental health therapist.
Launching this month are classes on ergonomics led by a Northwell physical therapist. Underway are discussions to convert an occupied parcel of land on the backstretch into a working farm for greens and other vegetables that would be distributed to backstretch workers.
The clinic and new offerings are the latest evolution of Northwell’s growing relationship with the backstretch community. It dates to 2020 when Northwell began providing COVID-19 testing for backstretch workers at Belmont Park, and followed up in 2021 with COVID-19 vaccines. More than 90 percent of the hundreds of backstretch workers based at Belmont are vaccinated, which is well above the New York State average.
The clinic, instantly recognizable by the oversized racing murals on its outside wall, offers patient hours three days a week – soon be to expanded to five – and referrals to specialty services as needed. There are two exam rooms and lab services for point-of-care testing. Some services, such as physicals, need to be reserved. Walk-ins are welcome for care related to work injuries, like horse bites and kicks.
“What’s exciting about working at Belmont Park is how much we’re learning about how to better serve the men and women there,” said Dr. Tochi Iroku-Malize, the clinic’s medical director and Northwell’s senior vice president and chair of family medicine. “We’re confident that we’ll continue to develop services that meet their needs.”
Spreading the word on the backstretch about the new service offerings and the enhanced clinic is crucial, said Ruchames. He credited word of mouth and fliers on the cancer screenings with helping – along with what he called a new spirit of cooperation and collaboration among B.E.S.T, NYRA and other non-profit organizations on the backstretch.
Ruchames referred to NYRA’s “Preparedness and Response Plan Committee,” which formed in 2020 in response to the onslaught of challenges of the COVID 19 pandemic. Comprised of key NYRA staff members and B.E.S.T., along with representatives of New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (NYTHA), and the New York Race Track Chaplaincy, the committee used an effective team approach in dealing with urgent health issues, both big and small, by holding daily conference calls and responding as needed to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on the backstretch community.
“The committee’s decision-making process made us closer and more aware of one another’s roles at the racetrack,” said Ruchames. “I think that’s helped with the referrals and more people encouraged to visit the clinic and find out what’s happening there.”
Exercise rider Kevin Soodoo said he was happy to be at the clinic for his annual physical.
“This is an important place for those of us making our living on the track,” he said. “I’m confident that I’m getting good treatment.”