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Medical students launch initiative to meet health care needs in underserved communities

Urban Health Scholars at UMass Medical School will focus on primary care and population health

  First-year School of Medicine students Rodney Bruno and Ariana Perry are student leaders for the new Urban Health Scholars pathway at UMass Medical School.

First-year School of Medicine students Rodney Bruno and Ariana Perry are student leaders for the new Urban Health Scholars pathway at UMass Medical School.

Poverty, hunger and substandard housing are among the challenges that are endemic in many urban communities and pose significant barriers to good health. Such issues challenge the residents as well as the physicians that serve them, who need specific knowledge and skills to effectively care for their patients.

Now a cohort of UMass Medical School students will be better prepared for urban practice as inaugural members of the School of Medicine’s new Urban Health Scholars pathway. Funded by the Massachusetts Area Health Education Centers (MassAHEC) grant from the U. S. Health Resources and Services Administration, the program aims to further student interest in issues related to practicing in urban communities that are medically underserved. Plans are in the works to open the pathway to nurse practitioner students as well.

The Urban Health Scholars pathway, like the Rural Health Scholars at UMMS, focuses on six core topics, including interprofessional education, behavioral health integration, social determinants of health, cultural competency, practice transformation, and current and emerging health issues.

“The program is centered around primary care and population health,” said Linda Cragin, MS, instructor in family medicine & community health and director of the MassAHEC Network. “Its required core topic areas fit really well with the medical school mission and curriculum; we take that and reinforce it in an urban underserved setting.”

Urban health scholars Rodney Bruno, SOM ’22, and Ariana Perry, SOM ’22, have assumed leadership roles to develop and implement the pathway as their scholarly capstone project. Both observed the challenges faced by residents in their own hometowns and intend to practice primary care in underserved communities.

“When I learned about this opportunity, I was mentally checking off the boxes of what I wanted at UMMS. This is not a separate population to me but the people I’ve lived with,” said Bruno, a Haitian American who grew up in Roxbury. “I knew as a student doctor that I would need additional skills, because it’s going to take more than being from the neighborhood to help.”

“My desire to be a part of this program is very much intertwined with why I wanted to go into medicine,” said Perry, who grew up in a diverse area of southern California near the Mexico border. “The opportunity to lead and create and tailor the program to what we feel we will need to serve our communities drew me to the pathway.”

Bruno and Perry are working with Cragin, other faculty members and fellow students to plan a series of health enrichment seminars. They have reached out to the local community to identify challenges facing primary care physicians and ways to equip students for the field.

“Our vision is to incorporate more service learning,” said Perry. “For example, after a class on a topic like social determinants of health or the opioid crisis, we’ll go out into the community to shadow a social worker, or ride along in a methadone clinic van or participate in medical rounds at a prison.”

The pathway was launched this year as a pilot with eight students at Worcester Family Health Center. The eight faculty members who volunteered to serve as the longitudinal preceptors for the students are advocates and role models.

“The pathway forms a community of like-minded clinicians and future clinicians that allows them to build and connect and learn with and from each other and their preceptors,” said Cragin. “They’re committed to the population and to learning more about how to best serve it with great role models who share the same passion and commitment.”