The Yale School of Public Health hosted a panel of local and national healthcare leaders Thursday evening to discuss some of the nation’s most promising health innovations. Among the panelists and a central focus of the event was alumna Louise Langheier ’03, CEO and co-founder of the Peer Health Exchange program.

In its infancy, PHE was a Yale-based program by the name of Community Health Educators, which still operates on campus. Staffed by Langheier and five of her friends during her years at Yale, CHEs worked with local public schools after the New Haven Public Schools cut their health program in 2003. After recruiting volunteers and building the necessary relationships with New Haven Public School counselors and teachers, CHE members taught health workshops to high school students. Topics ranged from keeping a healthy, balanced diet to understanding the mechanisms of safe sex and consent.

“We’ve seen some great initial impact that we can do things like increase their knowledge in things like sexual and mental health, increase their skills of giving and getting consent,” Langheier said.

Upon graduation, Langheier decided to take the program beyond Yale and into other New England schools. Thus, with the help of angel investors, CHE transitioned into a nonprofit organization: PHE.

Currently, PHE is present in over 20 colleges, including Harvard, Columbia and the University of Chicago. Langheier also said she hopes to expand to the South in the coming years, once she has enough capital to do so.

According to student surveys conducted by PHE, the peer-to-peer model for improving adolescent health is effective —  68 percent of PHE-educated students said they had already applied knowledge they learned from workshops throughout the duration of the six-month program. Though slightly lower, the study also showed a 38 percent growth in health-related knowledge from pre-test scores to post-test scores.

Students present at the event supported these findings with personal anecdotes about their own experiences as Community Health Educators for Yale.

Attendee Sita Strother ’20 got involved with CHE this past fall and teaches workshops about sexually transmitted diseases and contraception. Swapping out the traditional brochures and abstinence-only material, Strother combines interactive activities with important statistics about sex when teaching high school students around New Haven.

Heidi Dong ’20, also in attendance, joined CHE this past fall as well and focuses her lessons on nutrition and substance abuse. Working with schools such as the Metropolitan Business Academy, the Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School and Hillhouse Academy, Dong has taught more than seven workshops in the past few months.

She said she has covered a wide variety of topics, ranging from the difference between processed and whole foods to the importance of alcohol safety, that she feels really made an impact on students. Recalling a moment with a student after one of her workshops, Dong was surprised to find out that the student was struggling not with substance abuse or nutritional illness — as were the topics of her workshop — but with depression and anxiety.

“She came up at the end of class and said that even though it wasn’t really relevant to the topic at hand, she had been really struggling with depression and anxiety, that her medication wasn’t working and that she didn’t know where else to go,” Dong said. “So after that we talked to the head of our program and asked if we could do anything and thankfully, we were able to connect her with the right people.”

Dong said she was struck by the fact that CHE and PHE were such conducive spaces for students to facilitate open dialogue about health issues. Even though her topic had nothing to do with the girl’s specific problems, she said she was happy to provide a space to discuss them.

PHE is present in 24 schools and is staffed by over 200 volunteers.

Contact Rocel Balmes at rocelbeatriz.balmes@yale.edu .