Peer Health Exchange (PHE) was founded to address a growing crisis. American teenagers are engaging in risky behaviors at alarming rates. One in four teenagers is a binge-drinker, three in ten sexually active teen girls become pregnant each year, and one in six teens is overweight or obese. In addition, public school budget cuts and staffing shortages have eliminated comprehensive health courses, leaving teenagers unprepared to protect themselves against serious health risks.
Research has shown that teenagers who engage in behaviors that threaten their health are less likely to stay in school, join the workforce, and become healthy adults capable of producing healthy families. To combat this challenge, PHE works to give teenagers the knowledge and skills they need to make healthy decisions.
Promoting Healthy Living Through Near-Peer Role Models
In 1999, Yale undergraduate Louise Davis co-founded Community Health Educators, a program that placed trained volunteer health educators in a New Haven public high school to help fill the gap left by an underfunded and understaffed district health program. In 2003, Davis co-founded Peer Health Exchange with the goal of replicating the success of Community Health Educators in other communities with unmet health education needs. Today, PHE trains and deploys more than 1,500 health educators to over 100 high schools in Boston, Chicago, New York, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Los Angeles, reaching more than 15,000 students each year.
PHE recruits and trains college volunteers to deliver a comprehensive 12-module curriculum to high school students on health topics ranging from decision making and sexual health to substance abuse and nutrition. Working at high schools in which the majority of students live at or below the poverty line, PHE reaches a critical population of students who experience disproportionate numbers of serious health risks. At these schools, PHE helps teens overcome barriers to healthy living by providing students with the knowledge and skills they need to talk openly about health issues and ultimately make healthy decisions.
PHE's use of college volunteers as health educators enables the organization to more powerfully influence the students in its program. Studies show that teenagers are more likely to remember health information delivered by educators of a similar age than when taught by an adult. As slightly older peers, PHE volunteers provide the benefits of peer education through traditional instruction, while also serving as role models, demonstrating healthy behaviors and a healthy transition from high school to college.
A Track Record of Impact
Program evaluations affirm that PHE is achieving results. Nearly 90 percent of students in the program say they will use a lesson learned from a PHE workshop in the future, and 74 percent report they used skills taught in the workshops before the program came to an end. PHE students also exhibit increased health knowledge, demonstrating a 22 percent improvement level between pre- and post-examinations. Furthermore, PHE is also affecting its college volunteers; 90 percent of past educators report that their experience with PHE has affected their future career and academic plans. Many volunteers have become teachers, doctors, public-interest attorneys, and policymakers who continue to invest in their communities throughout their lives.
As CEO, Louise is leading PHE toward its goal of serving 15,000 teenagers annually. In Boston alone, PHE plans to serve more than 60 percent of ninth graders in the public school system by 2011, an important milestone in proving the impact that the program can have in an individual city. Louise and her team are also working to fine tune PHE's curriculum by testing and evaluating pilot programs.