Med students learn about health disparities from those who bear the consequences

Photograph of medical students at the Hopewell baptist Church

UB medical students taking the “Health in the Neighborhood” course meet with residents of the neighborhood near Martin Luther King Jr. Park following a buffet dinner on Wednesday at Hopewell Baptist Church. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi

by Ellen Goldbaum

Published March 16, 2018

Medical disparities — variations in the incidence of common diseases among different populations due to social, not medical, factors — are a fact of life in the United States.

But while medical students learn such disparities exist, their education typically does not explore why.

Now, the roots of medical disparities — and how aspiring physicians can begin to overcome them — is a theme of a new course begun this semester at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB. Called “Health in the Neighborhood,” it aims to educate students about why disparities develop and how people are impacted by them.

“It’s amazing to learn of the distrust and ambivalence some people feel toward health care providers,” says Linda Pessar, director of the Center for Medical Humanities at the Jacobs School and a teacher and founder of the course. “If you want to learn about the source of that ambivalence and distrust, to discuss what health care providers can do to improve that, you need to go in without your white coat.”

By bringing students into the community to meet with members of Hopewell Baptist Church in Buffalo, and by pairing medical students with families in the neighborhood, students will become familiar with life in the neighborhood around Martin Luther King Jr. Park, as well as the realities of medical disparities and how they affect individuals.

Each family that participates will receive $200 through a SUNY grant to cover meals with students and other expenses.

“Health in the Neighborhood” is an outgrowth of a week-long community immersion program launched in 2015 by the Jacobs School’s Center for Medical Humanities in which medical students visit several inner city neighborhoods. It was a resounding wake-up call for both teachers and students.

Intense distrust

“What shook us all was to walk the streets of intense poverty and to hear the degree of distrust,” Pessar says. “When you meet people from the congregation, you get slapped in the face with their distrust. Most of us physicians think we are doing good. The intensity of the distrust and misinformation was shocking.”

For two years, Pessar developed the new course curriculum with Henry Louis Taylor Jr., professor of urban and regional planning in the UB School of Architecture and Planning and director of the Center for Urban Studies; David Milling, senior associate dean for student and academic affairs at the Jacobs School; and community partners Kinzer M. Pointer, pastor of the Agape Baptist Church, and Dennis Lee Jr., pastor of the Hopewell Baptist Church.

“Most of us physicians think we are doing good. The intensity of the distrust and misinformation was shocking.”

Linda Pessar, director Center for Medical Humanities

Structural racism and implicit bias

The goal of the course is to get students to begin to understand how structural racism results from policies that have created segregated, substandard living conditions; how physicians’ lack of knowledge of black culture creates lack of rapport; how and why widespread bias, both implicit and explicit, persists among health care workers; and how health care delivery to these communities can be improved.

Students learn, for example, how structurally racist policies have created neighborhoods in Buffalo that lack access to healthy food, better schools and health care, and where environmental toxins and the lack of green space contribute to higher asthma rates and a higher incidence of lead poisoning.

A lack of understanding also permeates much of the physician workforce, Pessar says. “A single mother working two jobs and raising children on her own knows she’s obese, but for the physician to tell her, ‘eat healthy,’ may be well-intentioned but it’s shaming.”

Those realizations are part of the change in perspective that students are already experiencing.

“Medicine is a field that is supposed to be filled with compassion and desire to help others,” says Aberlee Milliron, a first-year student in the class. “But how can that be if wait times for whites vs. African-Americans in the emergency room are different? Just being aware that these differences do exist will help us become better physicians overall, and help us treat our patients to the best of our abilities.”

Through the connections with the families that participate, students are expected to become familiar with the limitations of the neighborhood. For example, there may be no supermarket in easy walking distance and most people don’t have cars, while food stores that are nearby may have high prices and a limited selection of healthy food.

“The aim is to ignite a process that teaches incoming medical students about black lives in the hopes that this knowledge and information will inform their growth and development as physicians,” says Taylor, who also directs UB’s Center for Urban Studies.  

One thing that has surprised him, he says, is how little students know about the black community. “Of course, I suspected this, but it is still surprising when you see how correct you were. They have had very little or no contact with ordinary black citizens and know of them only through the news and other whites.” And just as notable, he says, is their openness to learning, knowing and evolving.

Taylor adds that the participation of the two churches and their congregations was crucial. “This course could not be done without the enthusiastic support of the community, including the ministers who are co-teaching it. Both the level of cooperation and the openness of the residents have been the most surprising. They have embraced the students and faculty members, and the conversations have been intimate and honest. They have become cultural guides who are carrying the students into their lives and community. It has been humbling to watch it unfold.”

“Usually, in medical school, you have world-renowned doctors and scientists at the front of the classroom,” says Karole Collier, a first-year student taking the class. “This course shifts the paradigm: It puts community leaders and the people who will be our patients at the front of the room.”

Burying people at 55

Pastor Pointer’s involvement with the course and with the Jacobs School’s Center for Medical Humanities derives from what he sees in his congregation, his family and among his neighbors.

“I got tired of burying people at 55,” he explains, noting that members of his community are dying at that age while the average life expectancy of a white woman in the U.S. in 2015 was 79. “I have impressed on my colleagues as pastors that we have a huge influence and we need to use it to improve these outcomes. You see how many years of productivity we are losing as a nation. We’ve got to turn that around and fix what ails our health system.”

Pointer has another goal in working with the Jacobs School.

He hopes that through this program, he can begin to convince Jacobs School students to stay and practice not just in Western New York, which suffers from a physician shortage, but to convince them to start their careers in neighborhoods like Martin Luther King, where the shortages are far more profound.

Collier, for one, is listening. “It is incredibly uplifting for this course to happen during my first year in medical school,” she says. “It has changed my trajectory completely about how I feel about staying in Buffalo and about the promise of what the school is really hoping to do in the community here.”

The introduction of the new course coincides with the move of the Jacobs School back to its historic roots in downtown Buffalo.

While medical disparities present a tremendous challenge, Pointer notes a key part of the course is focusing on something as ordinary as sitting down to eat together.

“In America and around the world, food is the great equalizer,” he says. “We sit at the table and we break bread together. If our equality is only that we’re hungry and need to eat, well, that’s a start.”