Thursday, July 9, 2009

Increasing Health Literacy: Two VISTAs in Rural Oregon

Viewfinder July 2009: Volume II, No. 4

Increasing Health Literacy: Two VISTAs in Rural Oregon

In newspapers and magazines across the country, articles covering the future of health care in America are prevalent. You can find articles like these in the Observer, the major newspaper for rural Union County in Oregon. But you will also discover another type of health care story. These stories focus on increasing health literacy for at-risk communities. Two VISTAs, Billie Jo Craigsmile and Dr. Tristin Mock, are behind this effort (read one of Billie Jo’s articles in the Observer), as well as many other activities to help the local population increase health awareness.

The task of informing the community about these issues is not an easy one. Billie Jo is in her second year of VISTA service, and much of her first year was researching the specific health needs within the community and the readiness of the community members for learning, developing, and implementing prevention programming. From this research, Billie Jo and Tristin are working on six social marketing projects: substance abuse, teens at risk for mental illness, household smoking, general communicable diseases, family planning, and immunization.

The research also shows that the readiness level of Union County is very low for many of these issues, to the point that many community members are in denial that problems even exist. The county has the lowest immunization rate in the state, and while teen pregnancy rates have been going down statewide, Union County’s rate has been increasing.

To take on these issues, Billie Jo and Tristin are using a six phase approach (problem description, market research, market strategy, interventions, evaluation, and implementation) for their social marketing projects. As part of this, they are reaching out to the community through multiple avenues. They are meeting with community groups, such as the Rotary and Kiwanis Club. They are holding presentations for teens, parents, coaches, and teachers. They are even reaching out to school bus drivers, as they recognize the positive connections many have to the students.

In addition, these VISTAs are also using opportunities and resources available to them. As word of the H1N1 (commonly referred to as the swine flu) made its way through the major media outlets, Tristin used this opportunity to talk with local leaders about general communicable diseases, as many were more willing to listen as concerns increased. Instead of creating a new social marketing campaign regarding family planning, she is adapting the efforts of a state-wide campaign for her needs in Union County.

In her second month, Tristin recognizes that her biggest hurdle is “Trying to figure out where you are going and how to get there is the hardest…looking, listening, and finding out what’s going on is very helpful.” Having already served in an AmeriCorps State/National program that included direct service of health care to an underserved community, she has a good understanding of how to approach these issues and build relationships with the population she is serving.

Billie Jo, having a VISTA year under her belt, is setting a goal of having her efforts complete by the end of year two so that in year three, continued implementation of the program will be in effect. To a point, she recognizes she is “territorial” about her project, and is really nervous about handing them over to her replacement next April (a mother of four, her protectionist nature has found its way into her VISTA project!).

Knowing their VISTA service will end before all of the goals for the social marketing projects are achieved, Tristin and Billie Jo are laying the foundation for their projects to be sustainable for years to come. They are creating user-friendly manuals and developing databases that contain the social marketing materials. Additionally, they have been engaged in agency education about their programs and are thinking about who they can train and hand the program over to in order to continue their success.

The Observer may soon be in need of something else to write about.

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