Health advocates embrace cultural communities

As the city of Vancouver grows in cultural diversity, so do programs aimed at helping members of diverse cultural communities to take their health into their own hands, by providing both the knowledge and necessary tools to do so.

The Healthy Living Program, run by Vancouver Coastal Health staff, is developing strategies to reach out across the city’s diverse population, as well as offering seed money to grassroots organizations wanting to add a health dimension to their services.

Healthy living and disease prevention

Caroline Price and Corrine Eisler of the Healthy Living Program. | Photo courtesy of Healthy Living Program

Caroline Price and Corrine Eisler of the Healthy Living Program. | Photo courtesy of Healthy Living Program

The Healthy Living program was created in 2006 with a specific focus on diabetes prevention. In time, the program expanded to a more general mandate of wellness promotion and disease prevention, with particular programs aimed at Aboriginal, Asian and South Asian communities.

“As we evolved, it was identified that the risk factors for diabetes were the same risk factors for other diseases,” says program manager Maylene Fong.

Strategies to support healthy living range from free health screening sessions to courses on lung health and beginner-level exercise classes. Any gaps that have not been filled by pre-existing programs can be addressed through their Community Grants program, which provides seed funding for community agencies to start their own initiatives.

“Community groups have used the money to develop a canning program, education sessions on healthy eating and walking programs. We hope that this small amount of seed money will help them develop a lasting program to promote healthy living,” Fong says.

The services and grants offered by the Healthy Living Program are aimed at people affected by social determinants of health, such as low literacy and income levels.

“These groups are often not well served by the health system, and our goal is to support, educate and link them to appropriate resources in the community,” says Fong.

Multilingual wellness promotion

The program also targets people from specific ethno-cultural groups – such as the Chinese, South Asian and Aboriginal communities – who are at a greater risk for developing chronic health conditions. In particular, a 2011 report by the Public Health Agency of Canada shows that people of South Asian and Chinese ancestry have a higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes compared to those of European descent, and tend to do so at an earlier age and at a lower Body Mass Index (BMI) level.

In order to reach these groups, the Healthy Living Program offers multilingual services such as the Vancouver Chinese Diabetes Education program, and First Steps to Prevention, which is offered in English and Cantonese.

First Steps is a community-based lifestyle intervention program that helps high-risk participants take concrete steps towards improving their health. Although it is typically offered in English and Cantonese, it has been delivered in Punjabi before, and may be again based on demand from the community.

As the Healthy Living Program is still a recent initiative, the difficulty at this point is in finding trained staff that can deliver programs in the languages required.

Healthy Living Program staff at a picnic event. | Photo courtesy of Healthy Living Program

Healthy Living Program staff at a picnic event. | Photo courtesy of Healthy Living Program

“[The Chinese-language diabetes sessions] are delivered by nurses and dieticians that speak both Cantonese and Mandarin. We are lucky to have these staff,” says Fong. “We will be providing diabetes education in Punjabi, but the struggle is always to find clinicians that speak the languages.”

The Healthy Living Program will again be accepting grant applications this year for community projects that are aimed at health promotion, healthy living and chronic disease prevention. These projects must target adults specifically aged 35 to 64 who belong to a high-risk ethno-cultural cultural group, an Aboriginal community or are affected by social determinants of health.

To learn more, contact Caroline Price at or