Promoting health in Edmonton through the Men who have Sex with Men project

Emerging Leaders in Health Promotion

Contributed by: Vanda Killeen | AMA Public Affairs

The ELiHP grant program

The Emerging Leaders in Health Promotion grant program provides funding to help medical students and resident physicians conceive and implement health promotion projects that support the development of their CanMEDS/FM core competencies, particularly health advocacy.

Jointly sponsored by the Alberta Medical Association and the Canadian Medical Association and its subsidiaries – MD Financial Management and Joule™ – Emerging Leaders in Health Promotion (ELiHP) projects facilitate the growth of physician leadership and advocacy skills in a mentored environment while enhancing the wellbeing of the general Alberta population through education, advocacy or community service.

The primary purpose of the Emerging Leaders in Health Promotion grant program project Digital Approaches to Health Promotion in Edmonton MSM (Men who have Sex with Men) is to address a significant gap in the provision of accessible, evidence-based and locally relevant health information and resources for this group. This ELiHP project was conducted by a team of medical residents and students at the University of Alberta: Dr. Ian Armstrong, Dr. Riley Davidson, Derek Fehr, Dr. Daniel Friedman, Kai Homer, Dr. Luiz Lisboa, Dr. Ryan Stubbins and Henry Wiebe. The team collaborated with Brook Biggin, a local activist in the GBQT community, to design and deploy a website and related social media tools.

The group researched other jurisdictions and their success as they engaged with their MSM populations through digital platforms that provided specific, targeted health education. A key source was Vancouver’s Health Initiatives for Men, who effectively use social media to generate awareness of their websites and the availability of local mental and physical health resources for their MSM populations.

Lack of targeted resources

Educational interventions designed to modify risk behaviour in MSM populations do exist, but a dearth of resources targeted directly toward the Edmonton MSM population remains, and this group often lacks cultural relevance.

The statistics speak for themselves. In their ELiHP grant program application, the group noted that MSM populations continue to experience higher rates of the human immunodeficiency virus epidemic, representing 50% of new HIV diagnoses in Edmonton, and 49.3% nationally in 2013.

The incidence of other sexually transmitted infections, including syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia remains notably higher in MSM populations, as do depression and anxiety disorders and a dramatically increased risk of suicide attempts. MSM populations are predisposed to alcohol and substance abuse disorders and a higher prevalence of tobacco use.

The foundation of the project’s digital outreach platform is the website, with its mixture of static and interactive evidence-based health education materials – developed and curated by volunteer professionals – that address key health disparities in the Edmonton MSM population.

Edmonton Men’s Health Collective

The Edmonton Men’s Health Collective website addresses topics that include HIV/STI prevention and treatment, mental health and substance abuse disorders, and some of the social determinants of health that affect the MSM population such as homophobia and social stigma. Actively promoted via social media (Facebook, Twitter and a blog), the EMHC website also provides information about community health resources.

Within a few months of its launch in April 2016, posts and activities on the EMHC’s Facebook page had been served directly to individual’s newsfeeds approximately 425,790 times and about 60% of website visits routed through Facebook. This demonstrates that a dynamic social media presence plays a vital role in the EMHC’s success.

Benefits of health promotion

One of the features of the EMHC that the group is proudest of is the significant involvement and solicitation of input, through all stages of development and deployment, of Edmonton’s GBQT community. “Respecting your community plays a big role in health promotion advocacy,” commented Dr. Stubbins. “We attribute our continuing success in curating conversations with local GBQT men around matters related to their health at least partly to the fact that community – right down to the leadership of the project – was involved at every step of the process. Too often, public health interventions are conceived with little or no input from members of the communities they’re designed for.”

In addition to learning the value of community engagement, the members of the team acquired leadership skills in project management and community representation. “Because physicians spend so much time working closely together, we can become almost insular in our perspectives and attitudes,” Dr. Stubbins explained. “This health promotion project helped us recognize that, as physicians, we must work with those outside of our profession in order to creatively and effectively address the health challenges people face. We need to learn how to collaborate with individuals who might approach the task or challenge from a different, but equally valuable, angle.”

Lastly, the EMHC project team learned the importance of leadership through advocacy. “Throughout our work with the EMHC, we’ve had the opportunity to represent GBQT men at a variety of tables. This has helped us learn how to effectively represent and advocate on behalf of a priority population while working with numerous stakeholders.”

References available upon request.

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