University of South Carolina

Professor targets barriers in Latina community

By Liz McCarthy,, 803-777-2848

In the early 1980s, DeAnne Messias worked as a community health nurse in the Amazon of Brazil, where access to health care was a major barrier among residents of rural villages.  

To reach the urban clinics or hospitals, patients would travel by boat, sometimes for 18 hours, and stand in line for hours to receive care.  To address this need, Messias was responsible for supervising a cadre of community health workers who provided basic health services in their remote villages.

Over 30 years later, the USC nursing professor continues her work with underserved populations, studying ways to get Latinas in the United States access to health care and health information.

“Working with vulnerable populations, I realized that there are so many different barriers and when people have a connection or trusted source of information from their own community, that’s often the best way to help overcome those barriers,” she says.

Messias recently partnered with Patricia Sharpe in the Arnold School of Public Health to study the effectiveness of “promotoras,” the Spanish term for community health workers, in modifying the health habits of local Latina women. The promotoras were trained to encourage certain health behaviors, like the importance of physical activity, how to fit exercise into a daily routine, and how to organize women in their own neighborhoods to come together to be more active.  They led participants in exercises such as stretching, dancing, using resistance bands and walking.

Ignácia, a promotora who had previous community outreach experience in Mexico, reports the women who participated are still interested in how to find a pool for swimming, where there are good places to walk and how to get women to come together for group exercise. These women continue to seek her out to find out about healthy habits even though the program has ended, she says.

That’s important because Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population and are among the highest rates of physical inactivity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

The pilot program in the S.C. Midlands led to a larger five-year study in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, funded by the National Institutes of Health, which Messias and Sharpe began in partnership with researchers in Texas last August. This study will involve more than 400 Latinas, ages 18-64, who currently do not meet national physical activity guidelines. Promotorasin four communities along the Texas/Mexico border will engage women in the physical activity intervention. In the four control communities, the promotoraswill deliver a health and safety program.

Having made some adjustments based on the experiences with the pilot program in South Carolina, the team aims to document how using people from the community helps increase exercise among moderate to low-income Hispanic women who don’t have a lot of resources.

“They don’t have access to things like gyms. Their local environments are not safe for certain activities or they don’t feel safe, so we have to find community-based activities that they can do, feel safe and feel are socially acceptable,” Messias said.

The program is in the beginning phases, but Messias says she hopes the existing community health worker infrastructure in Texas will help sustain the initiative after the research is completed.  

“The goal is to improve the level of moderate to vigorous physical activity within these communities and that women participating in the intervention will maintain these activities as a part of their lifestyle, not just as a part of the program,” she says.  

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Posted: 03/19/13 @ 12:00 AM | Updated: 03/20/13 @ 12:33 PM | Permalink