Why I love community health fairs

There is nothing like a good community health fair. Away from the formal, detached sterility of the office this is an opportunity to meet patients on their turf. No longer adorned with white coat, power outfit and accompanying entourage, physician meets patient as just another member of the community, an equal almost. With a backdrop of blaring music, sweltering heat and flavorful eats people young and old gather, eager to commune in the name of health. Meeting in this context fosters rapprochement between patient and doctor. The once hierarchical encounter is no more. In this habitat, doctor and patient are in fellowship.

I enjoy health  fairs because they provide the perfect merger of public health and medicine. At one instant I am advising a patient on her individual health needs; in another instant I am addressing a group  on health topic salient to the community. At health fairs doctors, nurses, community organizers, nutritionists, peer educators, farmers, pastors, teachers work in tandem for the community’s improved health. At these events I see my work as integrally woven into the fabric of the community’s identity and goals and there are few things more powerful than the feeling of contributing to a much larger whole.

A few things I’ve learned from my years doing community health fairs:

Health fairs are an excellent way to engage underserved communities in caring for their health. Know the demographic of the community you will be serving and address topics specific to the intended community. Presentations can take the form of small workshops targeting subgroups of the community (e.g. childhood asthma, osteoporosis in adult women) or they may be short PSA type announcements to all attendees (e.g. top three diseases affecting the community). Either method would increase awareness and spark conversation that could foster deeper contemplation and even lifestyle change long after the health fair.

Health fairs offer a unique opportunity to engage patients in the community with which they self-identify. When general health concerns are addressed in a group setting, individuals may be comforted by knowing others in the group share the same concerns that they do. It also works when trying to get a message across — and may very well push those in precontemplation stage squarely into action.  A sort of herd mentality (think Malcom Gladwell’s The Tipping Point), if you will. This can be an effective tool for us physicians in successful health promotion.

Health fairs are a great opportunity to field patient questions. People have many burning questions about health related topics in the media that they may not get to ask their physician. HFs provide a great forum where those questions can be answered. For example, at my last health fair the community was mainly christian Caribbean-Americans. With Bill Clinton’s veganism making the news, I was cheerily accosted by a group of men who were curious about the topic. I was all too excited to engage these Caribbean men — avid meat lovers, notoriously averse to a herbivorous diet. To find myself suddenly engaged in this ‘health huddle’ and fortifying their interest in eating more fruit & vegetables was truly a delight and certainly not something that one could recreate in the office.

Health fairs uncover and provide the platform to correct misconceptions. Patients don’t always talk freely in the office, even if you’re the crown master of open-ended questioning.  The relaxed and collegial nature of the HF  allowed for more time to speak openly with patients. I was privy to their opinions on taking medications, their reasoning behind not seeing a physician about a year long wheeze and learned a lot about their work and home life. These conversations uncovered several misconceptions — some were individuality held others reflected the general disposition of the community. Many had to be addressed!  This led to impromptu sessions to correct these misconceptions and set the record straight for the sake of the community’s health.

Health fairs can grow your practice. I don’t have my own practice (yet) but I got several inquiries about coming to “my office.” Had I been out of residency and practicing, I could have had several additions to my practice from that one HF. One physician’s practice grew astronomically after hosting several health fairs.

Health fairs are fun. Dr Jan Gurley (@docgurley) is right — there is indeed “addictive power [about] spending one’s day doing something worthwhile.”  Health fairs truly are a lesson in servant leadership and are a very fulfilling experience. Volunteer at a health fair one day. You won’t regret it.

“Dr. Peripatetic” is a physician who blogs at the self-titled site, Dr. Peripatetic.

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