VCU Medical Students Lend Helping Hands in Honduras

Many people take for granted the simple privileges afforded to them while living in some of the more developed areas of the world. Potable water and clean food, reliable housing, even indoor plumbing, are disregarded as easily obtained. The people that make up the numerous communities of the lesser known nations know this to be false. With so many of these privileges easily accessed by what seems to be the majority of the world, it is easy to forget about those living in the more deprived corners of the world.

Endless hordes of mosquitoes, no electricity or indoor plumbing, rail-thin cots, and an unreliable source of unclean water plagued VCU medical students as they travelled to the far corners of Central America this past summer in hopes of providing much needed aid and support to the underdeveloped communities that reside there. The communities of La Hicaca, Lomitas, and Olanchito were found to be nearly devoid of regular health care, access to safe sources of water, and clean, unpolluted air. Students of the VCU Internal Medicine Residency program are now being offered the chance for specialized training in the areas of global health and wellness through a new pathway offered by VCU, the Global Health and Health Disparities track, or GH2DP. This new residency track, founded and directed by Drs. Michael P. Stevens, M.D., M.P.H. and Gonzalo Bearman, M.D., M.P.H., allows students to experience two weeks of internship health experience in an underdeveloped country such as Honduras or the Dominican Republic as well as additional care clinic experience in resource-limited settings. Multiple areas of study address the problems around the globe of poor or no access to medical care, sub-standard and crowded housing, lack of clean drinking water, poor sanitation, and poor air quality Participation in advanced curriculum and journal clubs for the new track’s interests are also available. All residents who successfully complete GH2DP’s requirements receive certification in the global health specialty.

This past summer’s trip to Yoro, Honduras was the program’s seventh consecutive year addressing many of the ongoing issues found within third world countries. Medical students saw almost 700 adults and children over the span of two weeks, some who even travelled over five hours for care. Students provided anti-worm therapy to adults, pap smears for women, and screened for “common” illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, and anemia. GH2DP residents also provided much needed information about the importance of sanitation and the dangers of air and water pollution. Education was provided on communities’ air quality and what citizens could do to improve their respiratory health. The extremely successful water filter program was implemented with students distributing over 150 water filters and instructing communities on their proper usage and maintenance. A single water filter may provide clean drinking water for an entire family for over two years. Since the inception of GH2DP’s water filter program there has been a notable fifty percent decrease in diarrheal illness in the region.

The level of success within the GH2DP residency track is immensely notable and valued but the exclusive program also has generated additional success within its students. The program has recently birthed its first graduate, Dr. Jeff Wang. Participating in approximately fifteen hours of advanced graduate level coursework and online modules as well as joining the numerous excursions to Central America, Dr. Wang has expressed his great appreciation numerous times for the experiences he gained in Honduras.

“While many medical students and residents have identified within themselves a passion to help medically underserved members of society, it can be overwhelming to know how begin to approach the problem in a sustainable, data-driven way,” he states. “With the demands of the clinical years in medical school and then residency, it can be easy to lose sight of that initial passion. I found that [GH2DP] provided structure and academic rigor towards that passion and consequently strengthened and matured it.”

Wang has also contributed to the program’s quality improvement project, the GH2DP Student Scholars Program. Students who choose to take part in the new program work with Drs. Bearman and Stevens to develop and begin intense research projects designed to measure and improve the level of care being provided to the people of Honduras. Such findings and solutions are presented to the medical literature communities for publishing opportunities, both locally and nationally. To date, the Student Scholars Program has had seven students join its ranks and whose research efforts have led to “twenty-one local, regional, national, and international presentations, as well as six papers in peer-reviewed journals.” Dr. Wang says of the research project, “VCU’s annual brigade to Northern Honduras has been tweaked and refined to reflect years of ongoing meticulous research and has been subsequently seen an increase in patient and provider satisfaction. It was very rewarding to experience it firsthand.

Later this summer found Dr. Wang beginning work as a hospitalist at Richmond’s Chippenham and Johnston Willis hospitals. He intends to follow in the footsteps of his mentors Drs. Stevens and Bearman and apply for an infectious disease fellowship.

VCU’s Global Health and Health Disparities residency track is a uniquely exceptional program providing medical students with opportunities not frequently available at every school. With advantages of both personal and scholarly growth and maturation, the GH2DP program is one that VCU cannot afford to lose. Donations may be made to the program through both VCU’s website and locally at the university. Donations are tax-deductible and are made to the Medical College of Virginia (MCV) and will go to the funding of medical and public health programs in Yoro, Honduras. A single donation of $25 will pay for one water filter.