Do community health fairs really make any difference at all?

As a frequent community event and festival attendee in Seattle and many other communities, I have always wondered how effective these events have been in achieving their goals of promoting health and wellness. In the public health world, we call these “health fairs,” and they are fairly ubiquitous nationally and accepted with de rigueur. But do they really work?

Somewhat new to the field of public health, I am more familiar with trade shows, which I have been attending for many years. These much more ubiquitous activities provide a common space where companies, governments, and a mass market meet to hopefully find audiences and make sales. They do not seem to be going out of fashion. One show I attended, the biennial Oil and Gas Expo in Calgary, one of the continent’s largest energy shows, draws 20,000 attendees from around the world and sells out every hotel room during its June run. The massive trade fair also attracts some of the world’s largest and most influential companies. So clearly where money is to be made, “the show must go on.”

The super-sized Oil and Gas Expo in Calgary is a perfect example of how important trade fairs are in the private sector.
The super-sized Oil and Gas Expo in Calgary is a perfect example of how important trade fairs are in the private sector.

But what of health fairs that cater to smaller subpopulations, and sell messages, behavior change, and health awareness that can be even unwanted by the audience? I recall distinctly that one of my public health professors at the UW School of Public Health, who shall remain nameless, said s/he had never seen any evidence this public health activity had any measurable outcomes, yet they proliferated as a best practice.

Champions of the health fair model

One fan of community health fairs is Dr. Kevin Pho, an internal medicine specialist who also runs a blog that attempts to reach out to a mass audience. On his blog, KevinMD.com, he gives space to another blogger, who does not give his name and thus we do not know if he is a true MD. But Dr. Pho claims he is, and by endorsing his colleague, he publishes a passionate defense of health fairs as a way of extending medical care without medical hierarchy: “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.” The mystery doctor, who we cannot fully validate, claims that health fairs:

  • Are an excellent way to engage underserved communities in caring for their health.
  • Offer a unique opportunity to engage patients in the community with which they self-identify, particularly when they are in the “precontemplation” phase of action.
  • Are a great opportunity to field patient questions–he claims to have fielded many questions about Bill Clinton’s post-bypass surgery veganism.
  • Uncover and provide the platform to correct misconceptions, in a nonconfrontational setting that can lead to positive discussions.
  • Can grow a doctor’s practice.
  • Are fun.

    At the 2013 Tet Fest at the Seatte Center, a health clinic table was set up amid other tables hawking cell phone plans and new bank accounts.
    At the 2013 Tet Fest at the Seatte Center, a health clinic table was set up amid other tables hawking cell phone plans and new bank accounts.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publishes how-to guides how to organize events that engage target communities, such as this guide focusing on injury prevention for kids. Seattle, where I live, is virtually awash in corporate medical events that also involve local partners, like the Seattle Housing Authority and social service providers like Neighborhood House.

These event focus on many of the many minority populations in King County, such as the Latino community, which was engaged at the annual Fiestas Patrias event held in September at the Seattle Center. This particular fair focussed on HIV testing, behavioral health, dental care, long-term care, cancer, chronic disease, and culturally appropriate care for the Spanish-speaking community.

I was recently at the annual Tet celebration at the Seattle Center the weekend of Feb. 16-17, 2013, and not to my surprise saw a table promoting health-fair-styled information for the nearly entirely Vietnamese-American audience in attendance. I did not have the ability to know if anyone attending bothered with that booth or were more interested in the photo booth, the deep fried tofu and Vietnamese coffee, or stage shows.

A booth offering Tet pictures appeared to be more popular than the health clinic table at the Tet Fest in Seattle in February 2013.
A booth offering Tet pictures appeared to be more popular than the health clinic table at the Tet Fest in Seattle in February 2013.

What do we know from recent research?

One non-profit, called Unite for Sight, published an article that reported that there was inconclusive evidence about the benefits of health fairs and community screenings. The medical literature has often viewed them with great skepticism. “Health fairs are neither regulated nor routinely certified in the United States, and complete data on their numbers and content are not available.” The article further noted that tests at fairs may be more harmful than helpful because the may unnecessarily alarm participants with bad results, or provide false reassurance that results shown are normal.The article cites a 1985 study that found “rates of false alarm of healthy people and false reassurance of those at risk may be high for some tests, and the benefits of detecting new disease are easily overestimated.”

A more recent 2011 study on blood pressure screenings at community health fairs, published in the Journal of Community Nursing, looked at outreach on hypertension. The article reported “nurse-operated health fairs, crafted to identify those with high BP readings, are promising as a simple and effective means in motivating individuals to seek follow-up care.”

Another study from 2003, Reconsidering Community-Based Health Promotion: Promise, Performance, and Potential, published in the American Journal of Public Health, found that “evidence from health promotion programs employing a community-based framework suggests that achieving behavioral and health change across an entire community is a challenging goal that many programs have failed to attain.” The authors, Cheryl Merzel and Joanna D’Afflitt, write that “interventions themselves probably are too limited in scope and intensity to produce large effects across a community. Many programs focus primarily on individuals, with most people receiving mass education alone, and interventions and messages are not sufficiently tailored to reach various population subgroups.”

How well do health tables compete with the private sector like banks, as seen at Seattle's 2013 Tet Fest.
How well do health tables compete with the private sector like banks, as seen at Seattle’s 2013 Tet Fest.

The article, however, reported that community interventions have been found to work for, say, HIV. They call this the “prevention paradox,” or the fact that prevention measures that bring big benefits to the community have little benefit to individuals. Thus, most community-based chronic disease prevention programs have  reportedly found it hard to get individuals to change their behavior, but HIV-related programs have reportedly worked.

Merzel and D’Affliti suggest that HIV programs may be more successful than other health fair promotion events because they go after small and homogenous groups. This is harder to do with large, diverse groups. So “getting identifiable social groups to change specific behaviors with discrete levels of individual risk may be more achievable than developing multiple interventions designed to motivate numerous subgroups of varying risk found within a broad geographically defined community.”

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2 thoughts on “Do community health fairs really make any difference at all?

  1. Noor August 12, 2016 / 3:14 pm

    How would one measure return on investment, cost savings or a reduction in recidivism?

  2. Rudy Owens August 12, 2016 / 4:09 pm

    I suppose you’d have to do a pre- and post-test study in a community for the same intervention (with and without a health fair) to get at those questions. It’s be a few years since I wrote this post–lots of hits on it. There may be some new peer reviewed data. I no longer have access to peer reviewed journals, so I can’t tell you what the new findings may be. Someone may have looked at those issues.

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