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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU Extension health specialist to chair national committee

A New Mexico State University community and environmental health specialist’s expertise in health literacy has put her in the national spotlight.

Head shot of women in red jacket.
Sonja Koukel, New Mexico State University Extension health specialist. (NMSU photo)

Sonja Koukel, NMSU faculty in the Cooperative Extension Service Family and Consumer Sciences department and co-director of the Southwest Border Food Protection and Emergency Preparedness Center, will serve as chair of the Health Literacy Team for a nationwide effort by the Extension Service and its partners to improve health factors in the United States.

“I was honored to nominate Dr. Koukel to serve on the national Health Literacy Action Team, said Jon Boren, College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences associate dean and director of the Extension service. “Dr. Koukel has risen to become a state and national leader in building bridges between Cooperative Extension in the land-grand university and the health system, which includes many state agency and non-land-grant university partners.”

Koukel has served as NMSU Extension community and environmental health specialist for five years. Previously, she worked as the southeast Extension agent for the University of Alaska Fairbanks and was based in Juneau. Her top programs revolved around food safety, food preservation and preparing/delivering health programs to a diverse population.

Since coming to NMSU, she has engaged county agents in such programs as the Stanford Chronic Disease Self-Management Program and Smart Choice Health Insurance Literacy workshops.

“Only a few state Extension systems have state specialists with appointments responsible for health,” Boren said. “Dr. Koukel is modeling the type of specialist needed in the next century of Cooperative Extension – the kind who will implement the new ‘Framework for Health and Wellness’ and thus move New Mexicans toward better health across their lifespan.”

Prior to being named the National Health Literacy Action Team chair, Koukel served on the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy National Task Force on Health. Koukel worked with a team of health professionals in developing the Cooperative Extension’s National Framework for Health and Wellness that was approved and adopted in 2014.

During a three-year period, Koukel will lead a team tasked with identifying existing and developing new research-based programs and curriculum, identifying gaps in knowledge, initiating system-wide impact evaluation, and identifying and engaging existing and new strategic partners. Finally, the team will provide considerations for current and potential funding mechanisms.

“Health literacy can be defined as the ability to obtain, understand and act on health information and services,” Koukel said. “For some, health information is readily available, but deciding what data sources to trust can be difficult, particularly when presented with conflicting recommendations.

“For others, the challenge is obtaining information in a form that they can understand. Having access to clear, easy-to-understand information is key to making good health decisions. The consequence of acting on bad information can be costly and even fatal.”

Other health and wellness implementation action teams include chronic disease prevention and management, positive youth development for health, health insurance literacy and health-policy issue education.

The National Framework for Health and Wellness is an effort of the Extension Committee on Policy, the representative leadership and governing body of the Cooperative Extension Service nationwide.

To read about the national framework, visit http://bit.ly/1Fvz95A.