Promoting Health on Their Turf and in Their Language

Yasmine Hung makes a community visit (Photo via Women's eNews)

In developing countries, community health educators have been used for decades to address doctor shortages, offering advice and information about common ailments. The approach is now gaining ground across the United States, Women’s eNews reported, with health organizations deploying lay people from immigrant communities to spread the word about health concerns, connect people with available health services, and help patients through the process.

The article opens with a scene of Lucy Huynh, a Vietnamese health educator, quizzing Vietnamese beauty school students about health topics and handing out prizes.

Also known as health promoters, peer educators such as Huynh are proving particularly effective at helping newcomers overcome such barriers as lack of insurance, confusion about the U.S. health care system, insufficient information on potentially life-saving cancer screenings and even cultural taboos that make it difficult for some women to acknowledge and seek medical help.

With roots in the communities that they serve, the health educators can tailor their approach to the particular health issues and cultural standards of the group in question. In the mostly Mexican-American city of Santa Ana, Calif., for example, educators from Latino Health Access approach women in a Mexican grocery store and go door-to-door with information on breast cancer, diabetes management, mental health and obesity, said America Bracho, the group’s president and CEO.

Her organization also uses promoters to cope with domestic abuse. Since it’s not feasible to go door-to-door in these cases, promoters have to get creative, in some cases staging tortilla giveaways with attached messages reminding women that tortillas — not abuse — are part of Hispanic culture.

Promoters are equally mindful of cultural mores at the Asian-American Health Initiative in Montgomery County, Md. In a Vietnamese Catholic church, for example, they used drawings rather than graphic photos of breasts for a cancer presentation, upon request. In speaking at mosques, promoters know to offer highly discreet settings in which to let women in the audience examine a model breast for lumps, according to Sanjana Quasem, program coordinator at the initiative.

Despite a lack of formal medical training, health educators’ familiarity with the community can make their outreach more effective, said Steven Wallace, a professor at UCLA’s School of Public Health.

“For example, research shows that in Latino communities, there is less interest in how a health procedure is going to benefit the individual and more interest in how it’s going to benefit families. So instead of saying, ‘You’re more likely to live a long life,’ the message has to be more like, ‘Think about what would happen to your children if you got breast cancer and died,'” he said. “It’s figuring out those messages. That’s why people need those programs.”

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