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Florida health department raises awareness using storytelling.

Hollywood has yet to buy the movie rights, but a Florida health department's book of public health workers' real-life stories has readers around the globe clamoring for more.

With the second edition of "Healthy Stories: Sharing Our Health Department Stories With the World," a small band of Miami-Dade County Health Department employees has handed the world something along the lines of the popular "Chicken Soup" books, in this case for the public health worker's soul. But the concept for the project comes straight from the heart of Mort Laitner, JD, chief legal counsel for the Miami-Dade County Public Health Unit. Laitner, the book's editor-in-chief, came up with the concept three years ago after hearing a lecture about how to use storytelling as a best practice for conveying messages.

Convinced that public health workers' unique tales from the trenches could promote the value of their work, Laitner recruited a team of volunteers from the health department's legal contracts division. The group donned writers' and editors' caps, solicited story contributions via the department's Intranet, edited the best stories down to about three pages and in 2007, produced the 25-page first edition of "Healthy Stories." When the book's appreciative audience begged for more, Laitner's team jumped in and repeated the process, authoring many of the stories that appear in the 150-page second edition that features compelling titles such as "The Rat Lady," "Kindness of Strangers" and "TB or not TB: That is the Question."

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"These stories are short and sweet, and they get the message out," said Laitner, noting that a third--and much thicker--edition of "Healthy Stories" will head to the printer this spring with the same intent: To spread the message that health departments and the public health professionals who staff them are caring, creative, interesting and above all eager to protect the health of their communities.

The message appears to be resonating with the public, Laitner said, noting that readers around the globe are e-mailing their appreciation to him and his staff. The stories, some of which are online at www.dadehealth. org/downloads/Healthy %20Stories.pdf, send powerful public health messages on topics such as tobacco cessation, alcohol abuse, overeating and unsafe sexual practices.

"The greatest joy of this whole process is when a reader comes back to us and says they modified their behavior by quitting smoking or getting an examination," Laitner told The Nation's Health.

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To reach a diverse audience, bonus pages at the end of the second edition feature translations of some stories in Spanish and Creole, some of the common languages spoken in Miami-Dade County.

"The book shows clients and our community partners that we are a world-class public health system," Lillian Rivera, PhD, MSN, RN, administrator of the Miami-Dade County Health Department, told The Nation's Health. "It is an innovative marketing tool that promotes the values, mission and vision of the agency."

The Florida Public Health Association helped market the second edition by purchasing 500 of the 1,000 print copies at cost and distributing them at its annual conference.

John Holmes, environmental health director for the Putnam County Health Department in Palatka, Fla., never dreamed his compelling and sentimental "Survivor's Love Story" would win the Healthy Stories 2008 Best Story Award. The seven-page tale chronicles Holmes' real-life health setbacks, including dramatic bouts with open heart surgery and cancer, and weaves important public health messages about prevention and wellness into an engaging story about love lost and love found.

"People understand the struggle and they understand the health issues," Holmes said. "They understand being in love. They understand losing love. Yet despite everything that happens it works out, and it kind of gives people hope."

For more information, visit www.dadehealth. org/public/publichealthy stories.asp.
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Title Annotation:STATE & LOCAL: Issues at the state and community levels
Author:Johnson, Teddi Dineley
Publication:The Nation's Health
Date:Mar 1, 2009
Words:625
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