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UCLA expands student opportunities with global health programs

By Ariana Ricarte

June 10, 2013 12:00 a.m.

He remembers how the main floor of the Central Hospital of Maputo in Mozambique overflowed with sick or injured children on crowded hospital beds.

As a visiting volunteer from UCLA, Cameron Escovedo communicated with patients through hand gestures and broken sentences, helping doctors diagnose them despite the broken CT scanner and lack of medical tools.

UCLA has created several independent programs and centers that offer doctors and graduate students like Escovedo the opportunity to travel to places like Mozambique, Guatemala and China, giving them the opportunity to work with local communities to improve health conditions.

For example, David Geffen School of Medicine and UCLA Health System launched the Global Health Education Program three years ago. The program allows medical students to participate in research or gain clinical experience alongside other doctors and medical staff in countries with little resources and staff shortages.

Medical students’ increasing interest in a career in global health was a main factor in the school’s decision to create the program, said Lee Miller, the co-director of the program.

Students are also becoming interested in global health because they want to increase their competitiveness in the international market, said Cindy Fan, the interim Vice Provost for International Studies at UCLA.

“Health issues are shared across the world and emerging health care professionals can learn so much from each others’ techniques and experiences,” Fan said.

While assisting doctors in Africa, Escovedo remembers electricity in the building being unpredictable, making it difficult to run tests on patients with tumors and other internal problems.

Fan said she thinks medical students ask for these programs so they can have hands-on experience with patients.

He said working with patients at the personal level in the United States is sometimes difficult because of the heavily institutionalized and technology-based system, prompting students to seek opportunities in other countries.

Students not only learn valuable biomedical information through these programs, but also return with a better understanding of the diverse populations in the United States.

“They come back with more humanism and cultural sensitivity as well as a greater commitment to addressing health care disparities here at home,” Miller said.

Miller said the number of applicants to the Global Health Education Program’s research branch has doubled since it was established.

Because of the program’s popularity, the medical school and UCLA Health System created Center for World Health to focus on improving UCLA’s global health relationships through initiatives like building business partnerships and conducting research, Miller said.

The School of Medicine is not the only institution trying to give professionals experience working with other cultures.

The UCLA Latin American Institute, which is dedicated to understanding the culture and region of Latin America, started a series of lectures this year about understanding medical anthropology in order to offer the best care to patients in the region.

Medical anthropology is the study of health beliefs and practices across different cultures, a subject imperative to understanding health disparities, said Bonnie Taub, interim chair of the Latin American Studies Graduate Program.

In addition to hosting the lectures, Taub and a team of graduate students and health care professionals travel to Latin American countries to improve health there by examining their way of life.

Reza Jarrahy, a plastic surgeon at UCLA Ronald Reagan Medical Center, has been volunteering in Latin American countries for 10 years. He repairs severe facial deformities in children with problems like cleft lip.

He said he would receive calls after he returned to America informing him that the stitches and skin grafts he completed in surgeries were falling apart – a rare occurrence, said Jarrahy.

He spent time in the communities of his patients, learning that they constantly inhaled fumes and ash from open flames which families used for cooking and heat. The unhealthy home environments explained the poor surgical outcomes, Jarrahy said.

“When you get to know where your patient is coming from, it makes a huge difference in how you treat,” he said.

Fan said doctors from visiting and host countries should share their experiences with patients because each country’s health system can be improved by the other.

“We need to enter different countries with the mentality that we are guests, and both sides can mutually learn from each other,” Jarrahy said.

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Ariana Ricarte
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