Volunteer Peer Health Coaches with the BETTER Women program mark their graduation with a chai ceremony.

Empowering South Asian Women to Live Better with BETTER Women

In July, 15 women gathered on Zoom to mark a major milestone: their graduation as the first cohort of South Asian Peer Health Coaches with BETTER Women.

Together, the new graduates – doctors, nurses, lawyers, accountants – enjoyed a chai celebration as they reflected on their training and shared their excitement about what’s next: helping women live better, healthier lives.

The virtual ceremony represented a major step for BETTER Women, an innovative new program designed by the Peter Gilgan Centre for Women’s Cancers at Women’s College Hospital and the Canadian Cancer Society to help women reduce their risk of cancer and chronic health conditions.

Currently a pilot, BETTER Women will connect specially trained volunteer Peer Health Coaches with women between the ages of 40 and 65. Each pair will work together for six months, with the coaches providing weekly support and encouragement as patients work toward a series of lifestyle goals – called a “prevention prescription” – designed to improve overall health at a stage of life when they’re at greater risk of developing serious health concerns.

“The BETTER Women model is exciting because it leverages evidence that volunteer Peer Health Coaches can play a significant role in helping women adhere to these ‘prevention prescriptions’,” says Dr. Ruth Heisey, chief of family and community medicine at Women’s College Hospital. “Studies show that women respond particularly well to this personalized, community-based approach.”

Patients will be recruited from three family health teams across the Greater Toronto Region. Each of the teams – Women’s College Hospital’s Family Practice Health Centre in downtown Toronto, Barrie and Community Family Health Team in Barrie and Summerville Family Health Team in Peel Region – has been selected to assess the impact of the BETTER Women model on different populations.

The new cohort of South Asian Peer Health Coaches will soon be matched with women from Summerville Family Health Team, where the majority of patients represent diverse South Asian backgrounds.

“South Asian identifying women, particularly immigrants, are at heightened risk of health issues like breast cancer, heart disease and diabetes,” says Shebina Amlani, a senior specialist at the Canadian Cancer Society who is focused on engaging South Asian communities and co-facilitates the South Asian Community Advisory Committee for BETTER Women. “Their increased risk is a result of many factors, including systemic barriers that prevent them from regularly accessing culturally safe healthcare services that may overlook the unique health needs of women.”

Amlani says the training completed by the South Asian Peer Health Coaches included guidance on helping women and their families overcome complex, and often sensitive, obstacles related to accessing culturally safe healthcare services.

“In many South Asian households, in order to access the woman, you must first go through her spouse – or her mother-in-law, in the case of multi-generational households,” says Amlani. “Our volunteers work with the families they will be serving with compassion and understanding as they focus on helping women access the support they need.”

With Peer Health Coaches recruited and trained for all three family health teams, matching will soon begin.

Heisey believes that BETTER Women, which is being funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada, the Peter Gilgan Foundation and the Canadian Cancer Society, as well as numerous other generous donors, could hold the potential to transform the health and well-being of women across Canada.

“Because this pilot is exploring the impact of BETTER Women on broad demographics, we will be well-positioned to roll it out to diverse communities across Canada,” Amlani says. “We look forward to sharing this model with other healthcare institutions so it can be replicated nationwide and beyond.”

For more information about BETTER Women and how you can get involved, visit cancer.ca/betterwomen

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