Spanish-language telenovelas to educate about health issues
Associated Press
Apr. 2, 2006

Sue Major Holmes

ALBUQUERQUE - A man, beaten by his girlfriend, shows up at a hospital.  Doctors treat him, then offer help for his obesity. That leads to another discovery: diabetes. Then, he and his girlfriend need counseling for domestic violence.

This soon will be the world of health care, telenovela style.

With the wait to see a doctor averaging an hour at one University of New Mexico clinic in southeast Albuquerque, the school decided to spice up the waiting-room experience. The idea: Marry soap-opera-style entertainment with health care information for its mostly Hispanic clientele.

"We wanted to capture people's imaginations while teaching them," said Ella Sitkin, executive director of information technology at UNM Hospital and the project's executive producer.

Last fall, Sitkin's group brainstormed about how to educate waiting patients, but the thought of filming someone talking about health concerns seemed boring. Then a co-worker came up with the idea of a telenovela, a Spanish-language soap opera.

Because the format is more sophisticated than an educational video, the project put out a request for pitches, asking writers to summarize a story and what health issues it would tackle. UNM's suggested list included prenatal care, diabetes, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, or nutrition.

Telenovela health videos have been done before, but they're not common. The federal Office of Minority Health Resource Center had none in its library, but the Texas Department of Health's video library lists one from California about smoking and pregnancy.

The Washington, D.C.-based National Alliance for Hispanic Health reported different groups have used entertainment to drive home health messages.

"The key thing is to be creative and find various types of formats that people find engaging," the alliance's Adolph Falcon said.

UNM's project is collaborating with Albuquerque's community college, the Technical-Vocational Institute, and the non-profit Albuquerque-based Digital Filmmaking Institute for the production, and with the National Hispanic Cultural Center, which offered its studio for the filming.

The vocational institute's training program for film technicians prepares students for jobs in New Mexico's growing film industry. Jim Graebner, who runs it, suggested shooting the telenovela using his students and equipment, thus keeping down costs.

The 2006 state Legislature approved $45,000 for the project in February, but Gov. Bill Richardson vetoed it. The project's backers then turned for help to the filmmaking institute, which includes Graebner.

That institute offered to produce the telenovela, "so we are still on track, and we will continue," Sitkin said.

About 50 to 60 of Graebner's students will be involved in everything from purchasing, transportation, wardrobe and sets to lighting, camera work, directing and editing.

"It's going to be a real experience for the students to see how fast the process works" in television, he said.

Sitkin said the project also will get advice from doctors and specialists in behavioral health care so the video is not only entertaining but accurate.

The video could end up as an hourlong story broken into four segments or as four separate 13-minute telenovelas. The hospital plans commercial breaks between each segment, with public service announcements touting its health programs, such as the availability of interpreters.

A small committee was choosing the final idea for a script, Graebner said.

Graebner expects a script this month. Filming could begin in May, and the finished version could debut as early as August.

"More than anything else, I want really good characters," Graebner said. "I don't care where you put them, a hospital, a house, a parking lot."

Although the original idea was to show the telenovela in one waiting room, Sitkin now envisions it being shown in waiting rooms across New Mexico, at health fairs, even on local-access television.

"I think it would be really helpful to this community," she said. "I think it could bring a lot of people together and help them with their health care."

She hopes the project does well enough that the university gets money for more. She eventually would like to do similar educational videos for the Navajo and Vietnamese communities, although she's not yet sure what format to use.