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MD student examines social determinants of health screening tools in emergency departments

Vanessa Avalone, a second-year student in the T.H. Chan School of Medicine, knew from a young age that she wanted to be a doctor after being exposed to health care by her mother, an emergency medicine physician.

Avalone is enrolled in the Population-based Urban and Rural Community Health (PURCH) track, an option for Chan School of Medicine students that focuses on health care disparities and health issues specific to urban and rural communities. Avalone is also part of the Global Health Pathway program, an elective four-year program that trains and supports medical students to be future leaders and providers in global health.

“We focus on underserved populations and social determinants of health and how it affects people’s access to care,” Avalone said.

She’s focusing on a population health clerkship on youth mental health and substance use while working with community partners that understand community needs.

Avalone earned a Bachelor of Arts in biology from the University of Vermont and, with a Fulbright Grant, taught English at a rural school in Malaysia and started the school’s first girls’ soccer team.

“I quickly learned cultural exchange meant understanding that even within groups, each individual has a distinct frame of reference and lived experience that drives their actions, opinions and feelings,” she said. “As a physician, I hope this nuanced understanding of people’s differences will help me approach serving patients from different backgrounds with humility.”

After her time abroad, Avalone moved to Worcester with her partner, who was already enrolled in the PURCH track at UMass Chan. Avalone began working as a medical scribe for UMass Memorial Medical Center where she accompanied providers into exam rooms and documented provider-patient visit interactions. She also joined and now serves on the board of the Worcester Refugee Assistance Project, or WRAP, which historically works with refugees from Burma but is now also helping evacuees from Afghanistan.

“It’s a great way to be involved in the community and as a med student,” she said.

Her studies examine social determinants of health screening tools in emergency medicine settings. Part of this includes talking to patients to determine their needs and understand any hardships they face, such as food and housing insecurity, and connecting them to resources.

“Three words I would use to describe UMass Chan would be collaboration, community and creativity,” Avalone said. “Here at UMass, we’re given a lot of opportunities to develop our own interests and passions and work together.”

The Student Spotlight series features UMass Chan Medical School students from the Morningside Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, Tan Chingfen Graduate School of Nursing and T.H. Chan School of Medicine. For more information about UMass Chan Medical School and how to apply, visit the Prospective Students page.

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