Empowering the Next Generation: Public Health Youth Ambassadors Leading the Charge for Health Literacy

Posted on May 22, 2023 by Rashmita Subedi Public Health Analyst and Project Officer, Office of Minority Health, and Anthony J. Mingo, Sr. Director, Community Health Development Division Project Director, Stronger2 Project, Fairfax County Health Department

Health literacy – the ability to find and understand health information so a person can make informed health decisions – is a cornerstone for better health outcomes. Health literacy skills develop early in life and reflect an individual’s culture. Unfortunately, disparities exist, resulting in low health literacy among racial and ethnic minority populations. Recent COVID-19 pandemic studies have shown a direct relationship between racial and ethnic health disparities, low health literacy, COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, and mistrust in the health system. These factors have increased COVID-19 cases and death rates among racial and ethnic minorities, including Black, African American, and Hispanic/Latino populations. Building health literacy can improve outcomes, and one key to doing so is empowering a corps of trusted messengers who can help others better understand health information by making it culturally and linguistically appropriate.

As part of the two-year Advancing Health Literacy to Enhance Equitable Community Responses to COVID-19 (AHL) initiative of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Minority Health (OMH), 73 local governments across the country are seeking to demonstrate culturally and linguistically appropriate strategies that improve health literacy around COVID-19 in vulnerable communities. The Fairfax County Health Department is one of the AHL awardees whose project, titled “Stronger Partnership, Stronger Community: Using Health Literacy to Increase Resilience (Stronger2)”, aims to improve COVID-19 health literacy among local African American, African, and Hispanic communities. The project is building strategies for a robust healthcare system by increasing infrastructure for social support, service navigations, culturally appropriate message creation with distribution through trusted channels, and provider capacity to address community health issues.

The Public Health Youth Ambassador (PHYA) program is one of the Strongerkey strategies to increase health literacy among high school students of color by training them as community health workers. Students participating in the PHYA program are empowered as trusted messengers of health information in their families and communities. PHYAs are encouraged to pick a public health topic of interest and create capstone projects that can be scaled up over time. PHYAs shared that they also sought opportunities to help community members get health insurance and encouraged clients to access health care. These activities helped increase preventative health services and community health screening services utilization to decrease the cost of hospitalization and emergency visits among minority populations.

PHYA Program graduates receive a certificate of completion from Morehouse School of Medicine’s High School Community Health Worker Program (161 hours total, including 91 hours of core competencies and 70 hours of field practicum), a $500 scholarship, a laptop, medical equipment, and professional connections (OMH funds are not used on scholarships, laptops, and medical equipment). Upon graduation, these PHYAs are positioned to secure paid community health worker positions or choose to utilize their certifications as part of their college entrance application packages. In this way, the PHYA program enhances local public health workforce development pathways among students of color.

HHS Assistant Secretary for Health ADML Levine meets with PHYAs.

On March 1, 2023, the Office of Minority Health hosted a PHYA recognition ceremony and Health Literacy fair. The OMH event recognized the contribution of 37 trained PHYAs who are helping bridge the gap between communities of color and health facilities by delivering primary health care to the community members and supporting the referral system. A highlight of the event was a listening session where HHS Assistant Secretary for Health Admiral Rachel Levine invited three PHYAs, Nayla Bonilla, Sarah Diriye, and Yalda Jimenez, who shared their lived experiences, their inspirations for joining the PHYA program, roles as PHYAs, impact on their communities, advice for future PHYAs, future aspirations, and career pursuits.

Engaging PHYAs supports OMH’s priority to bolster community health workers uniquely suited to serve within their own communities. Local efforts demonstrated by AHL grantees support national objectives, such as those in Healthy People 2030, to enable Americans to better understand and use health information. Through initiatives like AHL, OMH promotes effective evidence-based strategies for improving health outcomes to achieve health equity.