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A Healthy Message That’s Easy to Translate


This week the Inside Track continues a series of interviews with members of the Strategic Advisory Committee of Voices for Healthy Kids, a joint initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and American Heart Association, exploring their various contributions to the fight against childhood obesity.

For Kipling Gallion, a Leader and deputy director of the Salud America! program, telling a good story—in English and Spanish—is the best way to make public health messages stick.

On Salud’s website, those good stories about regular people are what drive a growing grassroots network dedicated to preventing obesity and improving health outcomes in the Latino community both in south Texas, where the program got started, and nationwide.

“We’re not looking for something happening at the pinnacle of politics,” Gallion says. Instead, Salud highlights “individuals, especially Latinos, who have made a change in their own community.”

Salud, based at the Institute for Health Promotion Research at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, was started in 2007 with a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which provided pilot-program funds to 20 researchers who either had Latino roots or a deep interest in health issues affecting the community. Those involved agreed that more research was needed to explore the question of why Latino children are more likely than children of other ethnic backgrounds to be obese. (From those 20 grants of $75,000 apiece, Gallion notes, the researchers involved in Salud’s pilot program have gone on to win further funding for their work totaling $30 million.)

In its initial stage, Salud also built a network of thousands of stakeholders and launched a website to promote the program’s research and tell stories about Latino community health. From there, starting in 2012, Salud moved forward with efforts to expand its network, targeting young people in particular, and further promote research and advocacy.

Gallion is a 30-year veteran of health communications. After studies in applied communication research at Stanford University, he worked in broadcasting and then found his way, via an academic mentor, into the health field. And over that time, he’s seen plenty of change. When he got started, he says, the tools at hand were either in-person community engagement or mass media. Since then, of course, the Internet and attendant technology has changed the game. But the goal is the same.

“We’ve always been into community development,” Gallion says. “It’s the front line of public health.”

From the communications standpoint, that now means engaging people through multiple channels, always with a focus on “building and feeding networks,” he says.

Once communication channels are in place – Salud’s include a newsletter, a Facebook page with more than 1,000 followers, and weekly tweets read by more than 6,000 Twitter users – they can be used to engage the community on a variety of health issues. “Everything we’re doing can all be used in the same way—it’s easy to put more messages into the hopper,” Gallion explains.

Beyond obesity prevention, the goal is to further explore even bigger-picture issues facing the community, such as disparities in health-care access and outcomes. Because Salud’s focus is on the Latino community, it offers a wealth of information in both English and Spanish—but Gallion notes that the discussions “can apply to any race or region.”