Public Health

Not all fun and games

group of public health students
(From left to right) Karlee Kent, Ariel Slifka, Greg Desmond, Ashley Chan, Belen Garrido, Nidhi Pai and Karina Ruiz Lopez.

Translating public health data into something actionable isn’t easy. The Benton County Public Health Department uses an interactive trivia game, with help from Oregon State University’s public health students, to engage the community in local harm reduction efforts.

The game, part of Benton County’s annual public health recognition and awards event, also celebrated National Public Health Week. The Benton County Public Health Planning Advisory Committee (PHPAC) helps host the event with the public health department. As a PHPAC member and faculty advisor of the OSU Student Public Health Association, I asked county staff members for a student role at the event. Our students were welcomed into a small leadership role and provided special training by public health department staff to prepare the students for their role.

The event included two presentations and an interactive trivia game about our county’s successes in harm reduction. Harm reduction is a health promotion approach that is guided by principles of respecting individual autonomy and providing support for health improvement without judgment whenever, wherever, however, and to whatever extent those services are needed.

Benton County’s harm reduction program uses evidence-based approaches to reducing risk in the areas of substance abuse disorders, sexually transmitted infections, mental illness and homelessness. Our county supports a team of outreach workers who deliver services such as assistance accessing health care through the Oregon Health Plan, receiving vaccinations, screening for communicable diseases, exchanging syringe needles to reduce the usage of dirty needles, and providing basic needs such as water and socks. One of the outreach workers uses a mountain bike to tow a large trailer with supplies around the community, reaching those most isolated from society and services.

Many students attended the event to experience how public health is practiced in local government and to learn about the county’s harm reduction activities. Following the presentations, a select group of students affiliated with the OSU Student Public Health Association served as the team leaders for the trivia game on harm reduction. They led inter-disciplinary teams composed of professionals across many sectors of the county’s public health system, such as police officers, medical providers, county staff, and local political leaders. Questions included: What proportion of Oregonians have never had an HIV screening?; How many people experiencing homelessness have received outreach services from the county’s harm reduction team in the last four months? (277!); and How many used syringes have been exchanged through the harm reduction team’s services in the last four months? (52,000!)

Peter Banwarth, the health department epidemiologist, said his goal is to translate the county’s epidemiological data into something meaningful and interesting for the community. This trivia game aimed to do that – and it did.

Student perspectives

“I learned so much from the trivia game! I had no idea how vast and wide services from the Benton County Health Department reached. It certainly gave me exposure to health promotion and health behavior practices at the local level. This experience got me thinking about what roles and niches interest me within the broader field of public health.”

-Karina Ruiz Lopez, public health major

“I haven’t had much experience in the concepts of harm reduction in my classes so far at OSU and I was inspired by the health department’s commitment to reaching people where they are and providing them with services that might prevent worse outcomes while engaging in risky behaviors. They showed compassion, dedication and absolutely no judgment for the populations that they work within the county. These are all important qualities that I hope everyone working in public health remembers.

“I also thought it was interesting that an award was given for bringing in money to improve the public transportation system of the county. Public transportation isn’t something that first comes to mind when you think about public health, but it’s an important aspect for people being able to reliably and consistently reach clinics, grocery stores, health departments and other necessities.”

-Ariel Marie Slifka, public health major