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Stanford University School of Medicine

Project aims to improve well-being in rural Mexican communities

san-miguel-peras_jshTo improve the health and well-being of people around the world, researchers must first understand what it means to be well and whether this has the same meaning for everyone.

A Stanford team at the Wellness Living Laboratory (WELL) is working to define and measure wellness by identifying the factors that help people maintain it and by testing new interventions. As announced earlier this week, they're engaging thousands of participants from around the world, including in the U.S., China and Taiwan, with the ultimate goal of optimizing everyone's health and well-being.

Nicole Rodriguez, a research assistant with the Wellness Living Laboratory at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, recently extended this work to Mexico in conjunction with Stanford's Community Health in Oaxaca program. This summer Rodriguez carried out a new research study with a team of Stanford undergraduates to explore the well-being of two impoverished, rural communities in Oaxaca, Mexico; I recently spoke with her about the work.

How do you define well-being? Why is it important to study this worldwide?

Well-being is about considering the whole person, where health extends beyond physical health to encompass emotional health, social connectedness, lifestyle behaviors and even factors like sense of purpose and creativity.

It's important to consider what factors contribute to universal well-being -- across cultures and socioeconomic gradients. Studying well-being helps us understand what people in diverse parts of the world care about the most and how they prioritize aspects of their lives and health. Understanding what motivates and drives people then allows for more targeted and efficient public health efforts.

What inspired you to work in Oaxaca?

I've been working with underserved Hispanic populations throughout Santa Clara County doing WELL research, and I was curious to learn more about the cross-cultural well-being in Latin American populations.

Seven years ago, I participated as an undergraduate in Stanford's community health overseas program in Oaxaca with Gabriel Garcia, MD and Ann Banchoff. The class launched me on a career working to address health disparities among marginalized populations. This year, I returned as a program assistant to help build the research portion of the course. It was an honor to give back to the program and revisit the place and people that shaped my aspirations in medicine.

What did your research group do in Oaxaca?

We worked with a partnering non-profit organization, Niño a Niño, to carry out a project that would help the non-profit and community leaders better understand the community's needs and priorities. Our group carried out a well-being study with 38 participants in San Miguel Peras and Pensamiento, two rural communities living in extreme poverty.

The first part of the study was an open-ended interview aimed at understanding individual perspectives and priorities surrounding well-being, which was modeled after the WELL measures process developed by Cathy Heaney, PhD. The second portion of the study incorporated the citizen science process developed by Abby King, PhD, which empowers community residents to capture the barriers and facilitators to their health and well-being -- by carrying out a tablet-based environmental assessment, taking photos and recording audio narratives -- and then engage in community advocacy. Lastly, we conducted WELL's core well-being questionnaire that is being used on an international scale.

I think looking at well-being is especially important in low-resource settings because communities have to think carefully about how to allot and prioritize limited resources, people and time. Niño a Niño is going to use the data about community priorities to plan out its efforts for the upcoming year.

What was it like in these remote rural communities?

Political protests and unrest across Oaxaca complicated the decision to bring the students to Mexico this summer. The city was generally calm while we were there, but we did face some shutdowns of public transportation, clinics and hospitals. I think it provided good exposure to how governmental issues can impact critical public services like healthcare.

The students also learned about community health fieldwork in marginalized and remote villages. After a rocky two-hour bus ride through muddy unpaved cliffs, we arrived in the village center. A group of children greeted our team to lead us to the family homes where we would carry out the interviews. Assuring us that the homes were close by, the children led us on an uphill scramble for about an hour to reach the families. We crossed rivers, slipped on fresh clay and mud, and held on to rocks and branches for balance as we worked our way up to the homes -- while our young guides hopped gracefully through the paths.

In these rural impoverished settings, well-being was about meeting the basic necessities of daily life -- having enough water in the rainwater catchment tank and enough food to put on the table. Whereas a lot of our Santa Clara County interviewees discussed issues like balancing work, personal life and health, the conversations in Oaxaca revolved around meeting fundamental necessities. Exploring issues of well-being in these communities helps us think about what is truly essential for health and well-being.

Previously: Plumbing the well of wellnessStanford to launch Wellness Living Laboratory and Thinking about "culture" as part of the global well-being
Photo, of San Miguel Peras, by Paul Serrato

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