The Doctor Is In...Central Falls

Oct 24, 2013

Last night I attended one of what could be the first of 39 more public forums, put on by the state's health department, around Rhode Island. And it wasn't what I thought it would be.

At a restaurant downtown Central Falls, dozens of citizens, representatives of community organizations, and health officials gathered around tables, shared a meal, and brainstormed about their community's health problems and how to fix them. It was all in Spanish, with English translations available via headset. Health department director Dr. Michael Fine sat in the very back, tucked behind a small table, with his own headset, listening. He was full of excitement, he told me, about this experiment in public engagement and problem-solving.

Central Falls City Hall
Credit Ryan T. Conaty

The forum began with a quick presentation on some health statistics for Central Falls, most of which were bleaker than the rest of the state (more than 40% are obese; about 25% smoke; fewer kids finish high school; and teen pregnancy is higher). Then participants at each table were given a piece of paper with some questions and asked to brainstorm some ideas. For instance, what are this community's top health concerns? What could the state's department of health do to help you improve your health? Then a representative from each table reported what the group had discussed.

I must say I wasn't expecting such a big turn out. And I wasn't expecting such lively, thoughtful participation. Honestly, I don't know what I was expecting, except perhaps a slightly dry panel discussion in front of rows of half empty chairs. That's not an indictment of the health department, but rather a guess based on my experience with public forums on big, broad topics. But this community not only showed up in force; they had lots to say.

So what concerns Central Falls residents? Several people listed school security as number one. That broke my heart. Many mentioned the scourge of drug addiction. And quite a few talked about the need for more education on how to live a healthy lifestyle, as well as more public places to exercise. More information about Obamacare and, in general, health services available, ranked high as well, with an emphasis not only on bilingual information but culturally sensitive, too. For example, someone told the group, HIV still carries a stigma in some Latino communities. You have to tailor your outreach efforts to take that into account.

Should be interesting to hear what other communities list as their top health concerns, in comparison.

Now, what will happen with these ideas and this wealth of information? I'm not sure yet because I haven't had a chance to reconnect with Dr. Fine to ask him about his vision. But perhaps his agency will spot the trends, grab the good ideas for tackling tough problems, and figure out a way to implement some solutions while maintaining this level of public engagement.