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November 05, 2021

Takeaways from the Health Equity Scholars Retreat

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hes retreat"It can be easy to be overwhelmed with the problems we face in our healthcare system today. The retreat was a reminder that no one person will fix the system, but each one of us can use our career to improve a small portion of it. When you look at it this way, equitable healthcare doesn't seem so far out of reach,” said Lauren Kois, an MS4 in the Health Equity Scholars program.

Medical students in the HES program were energized and inspired after meeting together to discuss problems surrounding inequity in healthcare systems at the recent bi-annual retreat held at University Hall.

Launched in 2017, the Health Equity Scholars program prepares medical students with the skills and training they need to care for medically underserved populations. The members meet twice a year to discuss various topics centered around a theme of health equity. This retreat’s theme was access to care.

“During the retreat, we were able to hear from different physicians about how they are combating health inequity. Because of their stories, I was able to see that there isn't ‘one way’ or the ‘right way’ to make an impact. Overall, the retreat opened my eyes to areas within our health care system that need improvement that I hadn’t previously considered,” said MS2 Kalissa Means.

The HES retreat was held from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. During this time, the 30 HES students networked, participated in a discussion about access to care led by MS4s, and played a board game about access to care in rural areas.  

“One of the main points we discussed at the retreat were the five dimensions that can influence a patient's accessibility to healthcare. These included approachability, acceptability, availability and accommodation, affordability, and appropriateness. We discussed the different obstacles faced in rural and urban areas, particularly, focusing on challenges unique to communities in the state of Alabama,” said MS2 Gazal Arora.

The students also heard from guest speakers, Eric Wallace, M.D. and John Dorsey, M.D., MBA, about their work in increasing care accessibility. Wallace is the UAB Medical Director of Telehealth, director of the UAB Home Dialysis Program, and co-director of the UAB Fabry Disease Clinic. Dorsey is the founder and executive director of Project Horseshoe Farm in Greensboro.

“This HES retreat centered around issues of accessibility to care within and outside of the healthcare system itself. While these issues are largely systemic, I found it inspiring to hear speakers and colleagues share mechanisms through which they have been working within their community at a grassroots level to promote local access to care, as well as how implementation of these mechanisms can interact with various inequities faced by patients,” MS2 Willow C. Bryan said.

Caroline Harada, M.D., assistant dean for Community-Engaged Scholarship, facilitated the retreat and found encouragement in the response of students.

“The guest speakers were amazing, and they really helped the students think of how their own path could lead towards doing this kind of work. But also, it's inspirational to see the students talk to each other,” Harada said.  “They are so smart, and so committed to health equity. And when they get together, it's just magical. The amount of energy and enthusiasm in the room is phenomenal and very inspiring.”

Harada shared that Dorsey’s experiences with personal setbacks in his career inspired both her and the students.

“It was really helpful for the students to see how a person's path is often not perfectly planned out. Unexpected things happen, setbacks happen, and you can still succeed. You can still figure out ways to be effective and even more successful, even more happy than you thought you would be,” said Harada.

Harada and Ala’a Abu-Spetani, an MS4 in the program, were both impacted by Wallace’s insight that when approaching a new problem, the easiest solution is rarely the one that's going to help vulnerable people.  This emphasized the importance of mindfulness when designing processes and systems so that they include everyone in our society, not just people who have resources.

“An individual’s health is dependent on so many external social factors that can perpetuate poor outcomes when not addressed,” Abu-Spetani said. “It is a physician’s job to assess the whole patient, noting the individual parts that contribute to and widen disparities in particular patient populations. There is resistance in the process of creating positive change.”