Monday, July 9, 2012

Immigrant Health Messengers Jump the Culture Gaps

By Amy DePaul

WeNews correspondent

Yasmine Hung makes a community visit Credit: Massachusetts General Hospital's Chelsea HealthCare Center

GARDEN GROVE, Calif. (WOMENSENEWS)– The key chain with hand sanitizer was a hit among the students of the Advance Beauty College here, where guest teacher Lucy Huynh was making a special appearance recently to discuss breast and cervical cancer.

Huynh quizzed students on women’s health topics and passed out prizes, including the popular key chains. Later, silence gripped the classroom when she recalled a local woman who waited too long for cancer treatment, leaving her children behind. Huynh spoke to students in the native language they shared, Vietnamese.

A community health educator for an Asian advocacy organization, Huynh embodies a nationwide trend of deploying specially trained lay people from ethnic enclaves to teach neighbors about health, connect them to available medical services and in some cases support them through the process.

For decades the approach has been growing in developing countries where it is used to address doctor shortages. In the United States the practice has taken off in the past 10 or so years in response to greater patient diversity and awareness of health disparities.

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.

“The nice thing about community health workers is they are part of the community so they really understand the needs of the community better than people from the outside,” said Theresa Byrd, a professor at the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine at Texas Tech University in El Paso. Byrd recently began combing the data from a health promotion effort she designed to improve the rate of pap smears among Latinas in the community.

While she’s still tabulating the numbers, “Many more people got pap smears among the group contacted by health promoters than in the control groups.” Her effort involved promoters tracking down women who had not gotten pap smears and then giving in-home presentations in Spanish on the importance of the procedure.

A key tenet of health promotion is to go where the community is rather than waiting for patients to show up in a doctor’s office, which is why Vietnamese outreach efforts in Orange County sometimes take place in beauty schools, the gateway to the region’s largely Vietnamese nail salons.

Only a few miles away from the Garden Grove beauty school is the mostly Mexican-American city of Santa Ana, Calif. There, Spanish-speaking health promoters from Latino Health Access, a community health organization, often approach women in a popular Mexican grocery store and go door-to-door, giving information on breast cancer and setting up mammogram appointments. Latino Health Access also focuses on diabetes management, mental health and obesity.

With an army of promoters teaching classes and knocking on doors regularly, “We make more than 40,000 contacts each year,” said America Bracho, president and CEO of Latino Health Access.

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