With a passport, a GPS and more than 100 pounds of educational materials in hand, College of Public Health master’s student Kate LeGrand was one of 22 USF Health students ready to embark to the rural mountainside town of Chicá, Panama.
In March, student volunteers from the USF International Health Service Collaborative (IHSC) spent their spring break staffing a three-day community clinic.
IHSC, an interdisciplinary organization run by students from across all colleges of USF Health, divided up the clinic based on their areas of expertise, including medical examinations, physical therapy, pharmaceutical needs and public health education.
“Every time I do one of these trips, I learn so much more about a different field,” LeGrand said. “Last year we only had one physical therapy student and this year we had five, and just being able to watch them work in their discipline and do different exercises and stretches was fascinating for me to watch; listening to pharmacy students have consultations and seeing everyone working together for a common goal to have that interdisciplinary approach on the ground, I love it so much.”
LeGrand, a master’s student in global health, has participated in this spring break initiative for three years.
“I’ve done a lot of this type of medical volunteer work in the past and this program is the first program where it’s completely self-sustained by community members and IHSC. We’re there with the help and support of the community, they want us to be there, they’re excited that we come and we are the ones who are making those decisions about health,” she said.
Drs. Daniel Forester, College of Pharmacy, and Jose Montero, Morsani College of Medicine, provided clinical oversight for the group.
Community members began with a health assessment and worked their way around each section of the clinic, as needed. At the end, public health students provided education on topics to prevent disease and encourage overall health.
The educational handouts, gathered by IHSC volunteers and translated to Spanish, provided education on common issues frequently experienced in the community, including information on high blood pressure, healthy eating, breastfeeding and information on water quality, safety and sanitation.
According to Nathanael Stanley, a global health doctoral student, one of the biggest health issues the group encountered last year was contact dermatitis and other skin issues, as a result of poor access to clean water.
“This was the first time this organization has ever done a research project,” Stanley said. “We decided to do an epidemiological study on contact dermatitis in Chicá to see if there was a correlation [with the water].”
LeGrand took on the project as part of her international special project requirement for the MPH in global health.
She applied geographical information system (GIS) to examine where the cases of contact dermatitis were and where the water lines were in elevation, as the community sits on a hill, with most residents toward the bottom of the community having poorer access to quality water, according to Stanley.
“This year with GIS, anytime someone at the clinic was diagnosed with a skin condition that wasn’t a bug bite or acne, when they came to health education, we asked them approximately where they lived, and we were able to do some tracing like that,” LeGrand said.
LeGrand and Stanley also used handheld GPS units to track where all the water tanks in the community were located to include in the GIS tracking.
Students also surveyed the community. LeGrand and colleagues walked door-to-door to speak with residents to gauge overall health concerns and issues, with quality of water and lack of a staffed health center as areas of improvement.
“People didn’t name specific diseases, they said we don’t have a health center, we don’t have good quality water,” LeGrand said. “There is a building that says ‘salud’ [health] but it’s not staffed, there is no doctor, no nurse, not even a bandage in there. So, the fact that they have a facility that it not even being run is of concern to not only the community, but as public health students to see what we can do help improve that infrastructure.”
The students also met with a representative of the health ministry to discuss the lack of clean water for some of the residents of the community.
“We’re looking forward to seeing more government hands in the rebuilding and improvement of their health center there, so that’s something we’d like to see on the horizon and assist with,” LeGrand said.
While there is much work to be done in the years to come, both Stanley and LeGrand said they have seen slight improvements through health education outreach in the community.
“Trips like this are crucial to a person’s education, especially higher education. If organizations like us have the types of tools to provide these types of services, then we absolutely should,” Stanley said.
For LeGrand the trip is something she valued as she hopes to continue this type of work upon graduation.
“When you’re having a one on one conversation with a family, the gratitude they express is just everlasting, especially, in a community where there is a lot of hardship and poverty,” she said. “That is very humbling and very honest to be part of and I really enjoy that.”
The IHSC plans to host the clinic again next year. Any interested students are encouraged to contact current officers, Nathanael Stanley or Danielle Dantuma, at email@example.com.
To learn more about GIS applications for public health, contact Dr. Benjamin Jacob.
Story by Anna Mayor, USF College of Public Health