Reap benefits with lay home educators

Mothers’ programs teach more than breast-feeding

One of the newest trends in women’s health is lay health mentors who not only educate pregnant women and new mothers about prenatal and infant care, but provide information about cancer, heart disease, diabetes, domestic violence, and stress. The result? More consumers are loyal to women’s health centers.

MotherNet America in Washington, DC, operates two model mentoring programs: in rural Virginia and inner-city Los Angeles. (See story, p. 35.) Each trains and uses home health mentors who share their clients’ socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. "Mentors provide an ongoing source of emotional support as they teach at-risk pregnant women about good health and nutrition, parenting skills, family planning, breast-feeding and the importance of prenatal care, postnatal checkups, and immunization," says Maryjane Henning, MPA, director of the MotherNet L.A. program in Compton, CA.

Women’s Health Center in Winnipeg, Ontario, Canada, uses mentors to educate and empower patients. "They are role models," says Barbara Wiktorowicz, MSW, executive director. "They ‘de-medicalize’ — demystify — information. They help clients put health-related issues, including pregnancy, ‘motherhood stress,’ weight issues, menopause, aging, etc., in context in the social factors of their lives," such as relationships and jobs.

Mentors teach clients more than how to sustain healthy pregnancies and good child health practices. They teach effective communication with physicians, other caregivers, and community services. Many MotherNet America mentors accompany women to initial prenatal visits and advocate with a variety of medical, legal, and educational resources. "The mentor really champions and encourages the patient to take charge of her life," Henning says.

"A lot of clients don’t get all they need in a 15-minute visit with their clinician," says Elizabeth Hilson, RNC, program director at FoxCare Women’s Wellness Center in Oneonta, NY. She says women’s health professionals support lay health mentor programs. "Mentors from the community enhance trust, credibility, and rapport."

Mentors encourage women to be assertive about their health. MotherNet America’s mentors train patients to use baby and personal health diaries and prepare questions to ask clinicians.

Effective mentors are sensitive to the range of issues that affect their clients’ lives and health. Henning reports that many of the more than 125 women MotherNet L.A.’s mentors have worked with since September 1996 "say their biggest issue is stress and stress management."

Mentors help patients manage stress by serving as sounding boards, teaching communication skills, and linking them with community resources such as vocational training and child care.

Reach women where they are

If you’re thinking about developing a lay health mentoring program in your center, try linking it to other types of outreach activities.

Women’s Cardiac Center at Mid-America Heart Institute in Kansas City, MO, reaches women at risk of cardiovascular disease by bringing "heart healthy" events to churches in Kansas City’s African American community. Events, promoted through clinics and churches, include low-fat, low-sodium cooking classes; "pew aerobics" exercise sessions; presentations on heart disease among women; and personal cardiovascular health assessments. Most events are free; health assessments cost each patient less than $50.

"I work closely with church’s women’s committees to organize and promote these activities," says Marcia McCoy, RN, MSN, coordinator of the center. "These are women in a position of trust. They support and model healthy behaviors."

Whether mentors see women in the home, community, or your center, they can help you reach them — especially at-risk pregnant women — and emphasize wellness and prevention. They are a powerful tool to encourage patients to understand how their lifestyles contribute to their health so they can make informed choices.

For programs that can’t send mentors to patients’ homes, "A trained person can do health education and prevention in the waiting room," Henning suggests. Staff or volunteers can provide patients with pamphlets on topics such as mammograms, breast-feeding, or stress management and answer questions about women’s health, parenting, and other issues.

"Or invite patients to come to the center a bit early, before their appointments, for a support group," Henning says. "Engage the patients when you have them. Make the best use of time."