Medical Self Care: Hold a Community Health Fair

If you're dedicated to the idea that people should look after their own health, here's advice on organizing a community health fair from a leading proponent of medical self-care.

061 community health fair - Fotolia

Dr. Tom Ferguson recommends involving as many interested parties as possible when holding a community health fair. INSET: Dr. Tom Ferguson in 1980


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In 1976, Tom Ferguson—then a fourth-year medical student at Yale—launched a magazine called Medical Self-Care... which he hoped would serve as "a Whole Earth Catalog of the best medical books, tools, and resources."   

Tom spoke of his plans for the publication and of his conviction that self-care could raise the general level of health in this country and lower our inflated levels of medical spending in a MOTHER EARTH NEWS interview in 1978 . . . and left no doubt that he would work toward making those "dreams" come true.    

Well, Tom Ferguson is Doctor Ferguson now, and the medical self-care "movement"—as well as Tom's magazine—has flourished. People are beginning to assume more responsibility for their own well-being and are eager for information that will help them take better care of their bodies.  

So in an effort to provide just such very necessary data, MOTHER EARTH NEWS offers as a regular feature a piece by Tom Ferguson, M.D., entitled (what else?) "Medical Self-Care."  

Hold a Community Health Fair

A local health fair (which blends the spirit of an open classroom, an old-fashioned barn raising, and a science exhibit) can provide your neighborhood or town with information on a mixture of traditional and alternative healing philosophies. In fact, one of the main reasons for holding such an event is to create a local network of individuals interested in health and self-care . . . and to offer those folks the opportunity to get to know one another personally and professionally by working together while serving the community.

In addition, such neighborhood gatherings dramatically reflect the medical consumer's new interest in and attitude toward health and self-care. (Besides, they're a lot of fun!)

Get Organized

Most of the experienced "experts" who we've talked to recommend that prospective organizers put in from two to ten months' advanced planning before an actual fair is held. (Just remember that every facet of the event's coordination will take much longer than you'd think possible.)

First, take stock of your immediate community resources: nurses, physicians, health educators, pharmacists, counselors, dentists, public health experts, paramedics, midwives, masseurs and masseuses, meditation instructors, yoga practitioners, and such organized groups as the American Red Cross . . . the American Cancer Society . . . the heart, lung, and diabetes associations . . . your local mental health center . . . Alcoholics Anonymous . . . your neighborhood library ... and—definitely—your local fire department (its members are trained to explain emergency medical procedures).

Also, consider asking other community groups to cosponsor the fair. The PTA, local schools, wholistic health centers, churches, and service organizations (such as the Lions, Rotary, or Kiwanis clubs) are all good bets. (Be sure to utilize every group that even hints at wanting to contribute . . . in order to make the event a true community endeavor.)

Make Contacts

It would be a good idea to get in touch as far in advance of the fair's starting date as possible with the National Health Screening Council. The organization has provided materials, phone consulting, screening protocols, equipment, and laboratory support facilities for over 800 community health fairs in the past year alone.

You should also contact the National Self-Help Clearinghouse for information on any self-help groups that might be willing to tie in with your fair. The Health Systems Agency is yet another valuable source of information. If you can't locate this group, write Aetna Life and Casualty for the address of the office nearest you. Blue Cross and Blue Shield can also aid you . . . by referring you to a local Blue Cross or Blue Shield Plan that can supply a quantity of self-care booklets (for free or at a nominal charge, depending on the number of pamphlets required).

When and Where

Spring seems to be the best season for a health fair. The promise of warm weather usually brings everyone's energy level up, and there's a feeling of wanting to participate . . . of wanting to learn and teach. If held in the fall, your event would likely have to compete with many other kinds of happenings (and, at that time of year, Christmas always seems to be just around the corner). Then, in summer, many potential fairgoers will be vacationing. You can't have a fair without people, of course, so it's usually best to plan a spring event.

A weekend is the obvious "right" time for a fair, and Saturday is the best day by far. Remember that you'll need a number of hours to set up the exhibits and an equal amount of time to disassemble them, so try to limit your actual fair hours . . . from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. is about right. And be sure to allot specific shifts (generally two or three hours) to the people who do the exhibits, screening, or whatever . . . so nobody gets overworked. Also, if you've announced beforehand that folks should fast before undergoing specific screening exams, you should certainly plan on a big crowd for such "tests" the first thing in the morning!

You'll require an exhibit hall large enough for people to wander around in, as well as smaller designated areas or rooms in which to hold individual workshops. Outdoor fairs are nice, but the weather does have a way of changing when you least expect it to. A gym is an ideal location . . . or a large church basement or a shopping center's mall would also do fine. Just be sure to hold your event in a place that everyone can easily find.

Publicize It

A fair won't be much of a success if you don't get the word out, so try to include an experienced publicity person on your initial planning committee.

First, make a list of all the media in your community: radio and television stations, newspapers, magazines, newsletters, etc. Then compile a roster of the central communication networks (such as churches, schools, unions, businesses, community organizations) where you can place posters promoting the event. Finally, if you plan to mail flyers announcing your fair, get hold of all the mailing lists you can use: church memberships, garden clubs, seniors' organizations, service clubs, and so on.

Put as much attention as possible into posters and fliers. (Your local printer might be willing to contribute this material if he can put "donated by . . ." at the bottom of each sheet.) Also, be sure to ask the local schools to send notices home with their students.

Then, a couple of days before the fair, prepare an advance mock-up of one or more of the proposed activities . . . and invite the local crews from your TV stations and newspapers to come and film and take pictures. Remember, these media will need advance visual material if their coverage is going to increase the number of people attending the fair.

Additional Ideas

Other than workshops by individuals and exhibits by the various groups, you might try to set up actual screening stations that offer, for example, the following: A self-administered health history, a height/weight, blood pressure check, anemia check (hematocrit), blood tests (probably involving a fee), oral screening by a dentist, hearing/vision check, or foot exams by a podiatrist (probably in conjunction with a foot massage).

The list of "attractions" your fair can offer will depend, of course, upon resources in your community. However, whether the event is small or large, everyone who attends should have a good time and learn something . . . not only about his or her health, but about the health resources of the town as well!