Starting an effective health outreach program

Q: How do I start an effective health outreach program?
A: There are four critical steps to an effective health outreach program, no matter what health message you are trying to convey, or to whom.

  • Gather background information about the community that you want to serve.
  • Assess your own organization.
  • Establish contacts and develop relationships with community members and organizations.
  • Plan and implement your outreach program.

Learn about the Community and Yourself
There are some obvious ways to start learning about communities that are unfamiliar to you. Start picking up cultural community newspapers. For instance, the Hmong Times is one of several newspapers the cover the local Hmong Community. Lavender is a newspaper for the area's gay, lesbian, bi- and transsexual community. Attend community events and celebrations to chat informally with people, and to learn about the community's geography and key institutions. Consult with local academics, health and social service professionals and influential figures within the community. Check the internet, the public library and medical or academic journals.

But don't forget to look at your own work area as well. Are your colleagues willing and prepared to take on an outreach effort? Are any members of the target group on your staff? If not, your claim that you're interested in the community might fairly be taken with a large dose of sale.

Build Relationships
Before you host your first event or print your first flyer, work to develop solid relationships with key community members and institutions. Meet with key leaders to learn about their perspectives, but also make it a point to talk to a broad range of people in the community. The leaders who are most easily found might not be the most influential. Conduct focus groups or a survey. Develop a network of professionals who provide similar services to the community.

Don't be surprised if your fist attempts to meet with people are viewed with suspicion or hostility. Many communities have experience with health researchers and institutions that want to do something to them, rather than with them. Finally, listen to what people say. If you're told repeatedly that the community neither needs nor wants your program, it's time to go back to the drawing board.

Plan and Implement a Program
Start with your health care facility or program's image. Do your logo, phone messages and office decoration suggest that you deal only with one race or gender? Do you have an advisory board of community members that can help guide you toward success? Are any of your program managers or staff from the community you hope to influence?

Consider collaborating with volunteers in your target community, or with faith-based organizations. If you're developing a media campaign, make sure that it's focused on media that are used and respected by your target audience. Be aware of inexpensive opportunities, such as taking a booth at a community event, that allow you to get the word out and to make more community contacts. Take a look at using community-based peer educators - they've been shown to be very effective at delivering health outreach messages.

Resources
Getting the Word Out: Effective Health Outreach to Cultural Communities
Thanks to Medtronic Foundation for the advice above, discussed in much greater detail in this manual.