Medical Students Role in Addressing Health Disparities

By Amier Haidar

Kids going hungry, massive lines at food banks (1), inability to access fresh food. These observations during this pandemic highlight just some of the health disparities that exist in our communities. COVID-19 has brought to the forefront the fact that marginalized, underserved populations are disproportionately affected by pandemics (2). As physcians are on the front lines fighting this current pandemic, medical schools need to ensure that their current students are adequately trained to address the next pandemic as well as the populations most affected by it.

The medical school curriculum is designed to teach students the pathophysiology of disease, differentiating between diagnoses, and formulating a treatment plan. In recent years many schools have added didactic lectures on biostatistics, health inequalities, and epidemiology. It has been a challenge for schools to incorporate public health content into the already full curriculum. The public health content that is included struggles to tie in the socioeconomic implications of clinical medicine. Public health is an integral part of medicine and more work needs to be done, so that students can understand why health disparities matter and what we can do to address them.

Medical schools can teach students about health disparities and it’s not in the classroom. We don’t need a 50-minute lecture on food insecurities and health inequalities. The best way to learn is by experiencing it and, by actively being involved in our communities. By taking meaningful action to identify the issues that our local communities are most afflicted with, medical students can lead the way in participating in community service programs to better understand our patient populations and the struggles they are faced with. A program that was started at a medical school in Houston provides an example of how this can be achieved.

Two years ago, we started a local community service project comprised of medical students to address the food insecurities and lack of healthy food availability at a local middle school. The school is unique in that it is of low-socioeconomic status, located in the third ward of Houston, an undeserved region, with historically poor health outcomes and high childhood obesity rates. The nutrition education program meets once a week, before school to discuss various nutrition lessons and provide an affordable, healthy food item for breakfast every morning that could easily be purchased by parents or students. In our case, we were able to learn how food insecurities affect dietary behaviors, how poverty limits access to healthy foods, and how health disparities exist without even touching a textbook or sitting in a lecture hall.

If public health-based curriculum reform comes, following the COVID-19 pandemic, it should give students the opportunity to participate in community-based service projects. Medical students can develop the tools and training needed to identify community issues, understand the health disparities that exist in underserved populations, and be prepared for the exacerbation of existing disparities during a crisis.

There is more that doctors and medical students can do to help patients and that by considering patients in the context of the community, physicians can better understand the role they play and the implications of the care they provide. Healthy communities require more than just medications and medical students can help bridge the gap between the patient and the community by learning to be compassionate and caring physicians to each individual patient as well as having a public health perspective towards medicine.

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