Anyone who has emailed their doctor about symptoms, reviewed lab results through a patient portal like Medfusion, or managed their medication using a mobile app like CareZone knows that technology has revolutionized how healthcare is delivered and accessed. Health education, a key to preventive healthcare, must now include instruction in the use of health technology. That’s why Los Angeles Schweitzer Fellow Tanya Olmos is working to increase electronic literacy among Latino adults participating in health education programs at their churches and parent centers in the San Fernando Valley.
“Latinos, especially monolingual-Spanish speaking Latinos with low-literacy and low technology resources, run the risk of being left further behind if they are unable to function in this hi-tech climate,” says Olmos, a student at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.
Working with Faith Community Health Partnership and Providence Health and Services, Olmos has created eHealth workshops to provide participants with the basics on how to access and search the internet, how to download and use mobile apps, and how to register for online and text-based health resources. The workshops incorporate hands-on practice to promote preventive health behaviors and better health management through the use of technology.
Launching the program first required helping potential participants overcome their discomfort with the fact that they had little knowledge or experience of digital technology.
“In my first workshop, everyone was quiet and passive until I shared the story of when my mom learned to text,” Olmos recalled. “That simple gesture of sharing a personal experience with technology exploded into a slew of similar anecdotes. They became captivated by each other’s struggles and successes with cell phones and computers. The realization that they were all in similar places when it came to technology helped them open up and want to take the workshop.”
From there, it didn’t take long for participants to experience the tangible benefits of using technology to manage and improve their health. One participant, for example, had previously had to make daily trips to her health clinic to deliver records from a machine that continuously monitors her asthma symptoms. After learning how to send and reply to email in Olmos’s workshop, the woman emailed the clinic and arranged to send her daily records electronically.
“I can’t believe how much my life has changed from knowing how to use something so simple,” the woman later told Olmos and other workshop participants. “Do you know how much time I got back every day not having to drive to the clinic?”
For another woman, a meditation and relaxation app has made a dramatic difference in her ability to overcome anxiety-induced sleeplessness. “She expressed that her anxiety made her grind her teeth and clench her fists. No matter what she tried she could not calm her thoughts enough to fall asleep,” says Olmos. “After trying out [the app] every night for a week, she loves it. She is able to fall asleep with greater ease and for the first time in a very long time. She was beyond thrilled that it had worked.”
Due to overwhelming interest from members of the Latino community, the prospects for the long-term sustainability of Olmos’s program look good. Her initial goal was to have partner organization Providence Health and Services take on the workshop after her Fellowship year and add it to their standard health education curriculum. But, just a few months after Olmos launched the program, community interest was so high that the Latino Health Promoters Program, a peer-to-peer education program that is also run by Providence Health and Services, began incorporating technology education into its health education workshops, which include instruction on women’s health, parenting, and nutrition and physical activity, among others. The chronic diseases workshop, for example, will incorporate the use of a free diabetes mobile app that can help manage and track medication and symptoms.
“By incorporating technology and health resources into each of their workshops two things will happen,” says Olmos. “First, the health promoters, who are community members themselves, learn how to use technology and reinforce that learning by teaching others. Second, community members will be exposed to alternative uses of technology to improve their health by instructors they trust. We couldn’t do this work without the invaluable skills and efforts of the health promoters.”
Word of Olmos’s project has spread beyond the bounds of the patient community it serves: Olmos, the health promoters, and the UCLA undergraduate instructors she works with were recently recognized for their work in the community by California State Assembly Member Felipe Fuentes with a small ceremony at one of Olmos’s eHealth workshop sites.
Olmos finds that being a Schweitzer Fellow—and soon a Schweitzer Fellow for Life—enables her to continuously recommit to public service, which can easily fall off the packed priority list of a graduate student.
“In our drive to succeed, to finish our schooling, and to learn as much as we can, it can be easy to forget why we are following this path in the first place,” she says. “As a Schweitzer Fellow, participating in the monthly fellowship meetings and sharing with other Fellows has helped me ground my work. I find myself committing and re-committing to do good by the community my project serves, especially as my project continues to evolve.”