Equity through Empowerment
Lazarex Cancer Foundation Utilizes digital sherpa™ Train-the-Trainer Program to Create Health Equity
Dr. Marya Shegog is all about health equity, and when she joined the staff of Lazarex Cancer Foundation in January 2021, she knew right away that the foundation’s partnership with Patient Empowerment Network’s (PEN) digital sherpa™ Train-the-Trainer Program was going to help bring health equity to the communities that Lazarex serves. “We saw the digital sherpa™ digital literacy skills training workshops as a tool that so many in our communities need,” says Shegog. “We offer digital sherpa™ to our communities to help increase their feelings of empowerment.”
The digital sherpa™ Train-the-Trainer program was designed so that organizations like Lazarex could train their employees, volunteers, and other individuals to be trainers, for the digital sherpa™ program, which helps cancer patients learn to use technology as a tool to help them through their cancer journey. The digital sherpa™ program’s personalized workshops help patients and their care partners learn basic internet and social media skills, how to access their patient portals and find information and support regarding their illness, and often answer their specific technology-related questions.
Lazarex has primarily implemented a part of the digital sherpa™ Train-the-Trainer program called the Digitally Empowered™ Course, which is a 10-module, self-guided, online tool that can help patients learn things like how to access and navigate the internet, how to use social media and online support communities, and how to identify credible websites. Dr. Shegog found the Digitally Empowered™ Course so impactful that she says she wanted it embedded in their program. She ensures that every employee, every volunteer, and every one of their community members have access to the course. She has even insisted her family members and friends take the course regardless of age or health background. She says she wants everyone in her community to feel so comfortable with the course that they would feel confident teaching it to others. “These days when you have cancer, you have no choice but to use electronics and technology,” says Dr. Shegog, adding that the self-guided aspects of the Digitally Empowered™ Course are particularly helpful because patients can do it whenever they need to and differing time zones don’t get in the way, which is important for a group like Lazarex that operates in both California and Philadelphia.
Lazarex operates Cancer Wellness HUBs in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and in the San Francisco Bay area. The HUBs are described by Lazarex as fully immersive cancer programs that are place based, community led, and culturally appropriate safe spaces for at risk community members. Through the HUBs and their other programs Lazarex helps patients who are often “medically underserved” gain access to clinical trials. The organization helps to identify clinical trials, helps offset expenses incurred through treatment, and provides community outreach and engagement. The hope, says Dr. Shegog, is to create health equity especially in the cancer space. “We know that healthcare is still very much physician led, and that there are so many biases in healthcare, and they go very deep and can hinder who has access to clinical trials,” she says. “Doctors need to inform patients about clinical trials but, if they have biases about their understanding of who the patient is, they may not do that.” PEN’s programs help combat any biases doctors may have by giving patients the knowledge to use technology to learn about their cancers and the treatment options available. “PEN is critical in creating health equity. That’s why I was so strategic about making everyone so comfortable with it, so they weren’t just comfortable using it, but also with sharing it.”
While digital sherpa™ workshops are typically targeted toward older patients and care partners, Dr. Shegog points out that Lazarex community members of all ages have benefited from the program, and that while younger users are very comfortable using technology, they aren’t always educated about identifying trustworthy sources online. One of the Lazarex volunteers that is in her early 20s completed the Digitally Empowered™ Course and learned how to find reliable sources online. “Gaining insight into how to identify what’s reliable was really helpful for her and came on time as she just recently had a family member diagnosed with cancer, and she reported that she was better able to support that family member through the tools she learned.”
In 2021, organizations participating in the digital sherpa™ Train-the-Trainer program were each given a microgrant of $2,500 to use in whichever way the organization chose to best implement the program in their community. Lazarex used their microgrant to ensure community members had access to the programs by providing hot spots and other means of technological support. Going forward, Dr. Shegog plans to continue using the digital sherpa™ Train-the-Trainer program for all new employees and new volunteers. “The Patient Empowerment Network Train-the-Trainer program surpasses the name of the organization,” says Dr. Shegog. “It does more than empower people. It gives them real life tools so they can navigate healthcare through technology.” She plans to ensure that the Digitally Empowered™ Course continues to be introduced to every person within their community, whether they are an employee, a volunteer, or a patient. She says a great time for patients to take the Digitally Empowered™ Course is during their cancer treatments when they spend a lot of time sitting. Patients can utilize the down time to learn about how to have better health outcomes through understanding technology.
Dr. Shegog speaks from experience. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer 15 years ago. At the time she was in graduate school, was far from her family and support system, and during diagnosis she dealt with the doctor bias that she now works so hard to flush from the system. Eventually she found the right doctor, but the process was difficult and expensive and filled her with self-doubt, and it is what led her to focus on health equity. “I choose to stay on the positive side of things,” she says. “I don’t talk about health disparity; I talk about creating health equity.”
Dr. Shegog earned her master’s and her doctorate degrees in public health with a focus on health promotion, education, and behavior. She also has a graduate certificate in women’s studies, and her bachelor’s degree is in biology, with a molecular emphasis. She also completed a postdoctoral fellowship with the Center of Health Disparities Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She served on the Lazarex board for more than six years before she joined the staff as the Health Equity and Diversity Coordinator. She is truly an empowered patient advocate empowering patients and advocates.
“The Patient Empowerment Network Train-the-Trainer program surpasses the name of the organization. It does more than empower people. It gives them real life tools so they can navigate healthcare through technology.” – Dr. Marya Shegog, PhD, MPH, CHES, Lazarex Cancer Foundation Health Equity and Diversity Coordinator
Jennifer Lessinger is a professional writer and editor who learned the value of patient empowerment during her struggle with a hard-to-diagnose and complex endocrine disorder.