February 2, 2020

‘Your Role Is to Generate Health in the Community,’ Health Expert Says

Libna Stevens, Inter-American Division, and Adventist Review

“If you think the role of the health promoter is about celebrating activities on World Health Day, presenting health nuggets each Sabbath [Saturday], or holding health fairs or expos in the community once or twice a year, waiting for people to come to us, you’re wrong,” said Tricia Penniecook, vice dean for education and faculty affairs and associate professor in the College of Public Health at the University of South Florida, in the United States.

“Your role is to generate health in the community,” she said.

Penniecook, a physician who holds a Master of Public Health degree and has extensive experience in the field, addressed church administrators and health leaders during the Inter-American Division (IAD) Health Summit in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, on January 23, 2020. It’s not about what you may think the community needs, she said, but about digging up data online.

The first step is to find out the causes of death in the country, she explained, as she led the group to search online at the Pan American Health Organization’s webpage.

“Causes of death allow you to find out what could be affecting your country and your community. Is it cardiovascular problems? Is it a serious diarrhea problem in children?” Penniecook asked. “You have to research so that you can effectively respond to that health need in the community in which you live. You can’t assume or plan a community impact for a group 45 years old and older when the population with the most significant challenges is found in children.”

The group took a look at data from Guatemala, which showed 17 percent of the population dies of circulatory problems, 12 percent of respiratory problems, 11 percent of neoplasm (or cancer), and 16 percent of other causes. Other countries like Mexico and Costa Rica showed higher percentages in those three categories of disease. Most showed half their country affected by chronic disease.

“There is no population that is not dying of anything. You have to look and target the need,” Penniecook said. There is always going to be work to do, she added.

Looking at the different age groups in the population will help in your research to find out more about your community, she explained.

Moisés Vidal, health ministries director for the Adventist Church in Guatemala, was surprised to see the graph shown on the screen. “I was so taken aback by the fact that my country has so many specific needs that must be addressed,” Vidal said. When he returns from the health summit, he said, he plans to meet with his conference and mission health leaders to start researching more specific needs in communities around them and strategies to impact them.

“As a church, we have a vast range of action,” Penniecook said. One of the ways of measuring the state of health in a country is the literacy rate. “The person who doesn’t know how to read can't access the information that he or she may need.”

Ricardo Marin, executive secretary for the Adventist Church in the South Central America Union Conference region overseeing Costa Rica and Nicaragua, said he was alarmed at the high rates of cardiovascular and cancer problems in Costa Rica, and the illiteracy rates that still need to be addressed in some communities in Nicaragua. “In our union territory, there are challenges with the medical service,” Marin said. “The figures shown move me to seriously research what the most pressing needs are, and how we can mobilize our health professionals and health promoters to effect the necessary positive impact in the community.”

Marin added that he has found knowing the specific needs of the community and connecting with the government are essential. “Otherwise, we are shooting without aim,” he said. That is the vision Marin is planning to pass on to the more than 300 health professionals and hundreds of health promoters in his territory in October 2020, when he will gather them in two separate events to strengthen the health ministries impact effectively across Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

Penniecook advised health leaders to join the community’s local health commission, its disaster commission, the waste management commission, and a public school that can have an impact on children. “Encourage this generation to study public health and get academic training, so that laws can be changed and effective, long-lasting impact can occur.”

It’s about getting members involved too, she said. Programs like “I Want to Be Healthy,” which teaches the eight natural remedies for a healthy lifestyle, can have lasting positive effects in generations to come, Penniecook said. “Engage the church members who are in the third age to take part in such projects to impact the community, and to assist with children.”

Penniecook called every Adventist member to build bridges with the community just as Jesus did when He lived on earth.

“We must connect with the fabric in the local community,” she said. “But if we lack compassion, love, and grace, our health message will not help anyone.”

The original version of this story was posted on the Inter-American Division news site.