Students Launch Inaugural Global Health Conference at Dell Med

This post is by Brennan Lanier and Thomas Varkey, members of the Global Health Interest Group, which organized the Global to Local conference.

“Nothing for or about us without us.”

At the Global Health Interest Group’s first annual Global to Local conference, keynote speaker Debra Litzelman, M.D., of Indiana University School of Medicine brought this theme to an eager group on a damp Saturday morning at Dell Medical School.

Referencing both her work in Kenya and urban Indianapolis, she emphasized that no global health or domestic health equity work should ever be done for someone without their input. She expanded on the Academic Model Providing Access to Healthcare (AMPATH), whose bilateral exchange of ideas between Moi University in Kenya and numerous academic medical centers in North America — including Dell Med — has become a star in the global health community. Litzelman also discussed the success of WeCare, a program that uses an interdisciplinary team largely composed of community health workers to decrease infant mortality in Indiana. She noted specifically the efficacy of community health workers’ door-to-door screening of patients.

Tim Mercer, M.D.; William Tierney, M.D.; and Alexandra Garcia, Ph.D., of Dell Med’s population health department provided more detail about their previous global health work and applications to the Austin community.

Garcia spoke on her household-level assessment project, in which community health workers go door-to-door to evaluate Austin residents’ health, inspired by her work in Kenya and elsewhere. Community health workers have been a boon to health. A large clinical trial of community health worker­­–supported care in Philadelphia published in 2018 showed a decrease in hospitalizations and an increase in patient-perceived quality of care.

Mercer discussed his work at Sunrise, a pop-up clinic run out of an Austin church that provides integrated primary and mental health care.

“I no longer wear ‘two hats,’” he told the audience, explaining that his work in both healthcare for people who are homeless in Austin and globally with people who are underserved are critical and related. He went on to reference his efforts with The University of Texas at Austin and Dell Med to establish a partnership with a Mexican university and medical school.

“Really as a global community, we should start learning more from each other,” he said.

Tierney discussed his work with AMPATH to create OpenMRS in Kenya, which has grown into the largest electronic medical records platform in Sub-Saharan Africa. Emphasizing work led by Kenyan partners, AMPATH developed out of a critical need to treat HIV, and data analysis and research was massively important for this goal.

Based on the input of his colleagues in Kenya, the team tailored the system to provide for both the record-keeping and research needs of the clinics. Locally, Tierney said, we have much to learn from this experience, as EMRs in the U.S. are plagued with data mismanagement and myriad problems for patients.

“We lit a candle, proved it could be done, and this turned into a conflagration,” he said of his work in Kenya.

Moderated by Global Health Interest Group co-presidents Ife Shoyombo and Sharmila Paul, panelists and insightful audience members from across disciplines shared global insights into tuberculosis and infant mortality. The conference ended with two film screenings on global health topics: “A Closer Walk,” about the HIV/AIDS crisis, and the recent Academy Award winner “Period. End of Sentence.” Conversations echoed in the halls about the ways to improve health in Austin based on the lessons learned at the conference.

The student leaders spanned multiple cohorts at Dell Med: MS1s Paul, Shoyombo, Katie Jenson, Joshua Mercer and Thomas Varkey; MS2s Karen Haney, Jacob Cooper, Abi Amadin, Pooja Srikanth and Megan Lewis; and MS3 Brennan Lanier. For them, seeing spreadsheets, countless email chains and hours of work over two years turn into a successful conference felt incredible.

“Planning certainly was more work than we expected, but it was well worth it to enjoy such a wonderful morning discussing Global Health and its applications here in Austin,” said Lanier, a previous president of the student group. “As medical students and global citizens, we see an ever-increasing obligation to help those in need — both in Austin and around the world, both at the bedside and by designing systems for increased health equity.”

The Global to Local conference is held annually. Stay tuned for more details on next year’s event.

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