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Getting to know Buffalo a priority for these med students

Medical students meet with members of the Yemeni community at a mosque in Lackawanna. Photo: Douglas Levere

By ELLEN GOLDBAUM

Published April 11, 2016

“Involvement of our school with the community is of enormous importance to the medical school as we move downtown. We want very much to be good neighbors.”
Linda Pessar, professor emerita of psychiatry and director
Center for Medical Humanities

Visits to a mosque, an Eastside church and a Buddhist monastery in Buffalo, as well as meetings with refugees, and lectures and discussions with community leaders about poverty and public health were on the agenda last week for 13 first-year students in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB.

The school’s first-ever community immersion program took place April 4-8 during the students’ spring break. The idea for the pilot program came from students involved with the Center for Medical Humanities in the medical school. The center focuses on psychological, social, cultural and economic forces that influence the practice of medicine and the doctor-patient relationship.

“The students said to me, ‘We want to spend spring break making connections with members of the community outside of the medical school on their own turf,’” says Linda Pessar, professor emerita of psychiatry and director of the Center for Medical Humanities. “They want to meet people in the community on their own terms and speak to them in a context in which they feel comfortable.”

The students are seeking a better understanding of the community in which they are learning about medicine.

“I think a physician is more than an individual that does the right thing at the right time when it comes to caring for patients,” says Tom Shi, a first-year medical student and an organizer of the community immersion program. “I think to truly care about individuals, we need to understand the social context of their health. When we start to learn about our community — not as people coming from the outside but really placing ourselves in the community — we start to take on a more meaningful role.”

Pessar says these concerns are being expressed nationally, especially in academic medicine circles.

“Throughout medicine, there is increased interest in becoming more accessible to the average person and not putting up so many hierarchical obstacles, which are especially true for people living in poverty and from other cultures,” she says.

It’s part of a trend that Pessar has seen grow over the past few years at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

“There is a core of students here that is really interested in global health and wellness in the underserved, which is wonderful to see and which the medical school is nurturing,” she says.

At the same time, she adds, with the medical school moving downtown by 2017, outreach to the community will be more important than ever.

“Involvement of our school with the community is of enormous importance to the medical school as we move downtown,” Pessar says. “We want very much to be good neighbors.”

For the students, the meetings throughout the community are providing real-world context to their studies. “We can become ambassadors for health care,” says Shi, “working with people’s personal beliefs, traditions and ideas to better facilitate modern health care practices. We can become a part of the community that truly cares about its prosperity.”

Shi says he was focused on “having honest discussions with individuals about the obstacles they face day to day, their thoughts on solutions that have been proposed and their experiences with health care.”

He adds that the students will be gleaning as much as possible from the meetings with community members and then discussing with each other what they have learned and how their perspectives have changed.

Prior to beginning the community immersion, students took the Implicit Attitude Test (IAT) developed at Harvard, which is designed to measure attitudes and beliefs, including prejudices, that people are unaware of or are unwilling to report. They will then take the same test after the week is over to see if their feelings and attitudes have changed.

“I look forward to sitting down with my fellow classmates and thinking about what our profession means to us and the different role that physicians can play in communities,” Shi says. “I look for these experiences to provide more meaning to my studies and to guide me in determining my role in medicine.”

Topics students discussed with the community include how people have experienced health care, what they think are impediments to health and wellness, what could make a difference to how comfortable they feel within the health care system and what changes would improve access for them.

Pessar says the response from Buffalo’s community organizations was amazingly positive.

“Everyone was immediately on board,” she says. Strong support also came from the medical school administration, including Alan Lesse, senior associate dean for curriculum, and David Milling, senior associate dean for student affairs.

The students began their week with a tour of the Eastside with Sam Magavern, co-director, Partnership for the Public Good. They then toured Allentown with urban activist Mark Goldman and met with members of the Hopewell Baptist Church with Henry Louis Taylor, professor, of urban and regional planning and director of the UB Center for Urban Studies; Pastor Kinzer Pointer, Greater Buffalo United Ministers, and Pastor Dennis Lee.

They met with members of the Yemeni community in Lackawanna with Yemeni community leader Gamileh Jamil; with the Burmese community, organized by community leader Ba Zan Lin; and with the Myanmar Student Society of Buffalo and former Myanmar political prisoners. They visited various local agencies and clinics, and also met with Gale Burstein, Erie County health commissioner and UB clinical assistant professor of pediatrics, and with the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County.

The final day included a presentation and discussion about health disparities led by Heather Orom, associate professor of community health and health behavior, UB School of Public Health and health Professions. Students also met with physicians who are deeply engaged in the Buffalo community, among them Kim Griswold, UB associate professor of family medicine, and Kirk Scirto, medical director of VIVE.