By Paul Karon

A public education program that trained and fielded a cadre of health mentors in California significantly boosted Latino residents’ knowledge of everything from cholesterol and diabetes to the importance of nutrition and exercise, a USC study showed.

The study, by the Southern California Clinical and Translational Science Institute (SC CTSI), showed that specially trained “promotoras” — community members who act as health-oriented helpers and liaisons to their neighbors and communities — were effective at communicating key health information.

Lourdes Baezconde-Garbanati, PhD, professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine, served as principal investigator on the study. Collaborators included Visión y Compromiso, an advocacy organization devoted to improving knowledge and access to health care for California’s native-born and immigrant Latino communities.

During the SC CTSI project, the study team trained 25 promotoras in a heart-health curriculum called “Su Corazón, Su Vida.” The evidence-based curriculum was developed by the NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) to address health disparities in underserved and minority communities.

Promotoras were trained to provide culturally and linguistically relevant health information and help to people within their communities. As members of the community themselves, promotoras were able to leverage personal contacts, trust and respect to address sensitive topics, counter misinformation and advocate for quality care, according to advocates.

The promotoras then organized 11-week heart-health courses based on the curriculum, involving Latinos who lived in their communities in urban Los Angeles County and rural Kern County. The study was designed to explore the value of the promotora model in reducing the disproportionately high rates of heart disease and other health concerns among Latinos in those communities.

By the time the study was completed, the promotoras had engaged a total of 730 residents in the courses in 49 workshops between the two counties studied.

Michele Kipke, PhD, co-director of SC CTSI and director of SC CTSI’s Community Engagement, said, “Promotoras bring unique expertise and skill sets that help researchers to create tailored, targeted interventions. This is a great example of an innovative strategy that brings researchers and the community together to improve the health of our diverse community.”

Based on data gathered through questionnaires administered at the start and completion of the courses, investigators found that residents who took the workshops improved in several areas of lifestyle and health knowledge, such as causes and effects of diabetes, as well as cooking habits and frequency of exercise.