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Medical Students Present Public Health Projects at Community Celebration

June 15, 2023 by Janet Essman Franz

Class of 2026 Larner College of Medicine students researched Vermont’s most timely public health and social needs, revealing important findings that will help shape direction for social service agencies. The students shared their findings at community celebration in on May 31.

Mikaela Mari ’26 shared her study group’s findings at a community celebration in the Hoehl Gallery.

Increasing access to mental health care, promoting food security, improving health literacy, reducing anxiety among young people, and removing barriers to primary care, palliative services, and vaccinations — these are some of Vermont’s most timely public health and social needs. Class of 2026 Larner College of Medicine students dug into these issues as part of their Public Health Projects course, revealing important findings that will help shape policy and direction for social service agencies in the local region.

With help from the United Way of Northwest Vermont, a longtime partner of the college, 16 groups of medical students were matched to 16 community projects identified by local community agencies. Using practical research methods, students worked together with faculty and community members to find creative ways to translate science into practice. On May 31, the 16 student groups shared their findings at a poster session and community celebration, held in the college’s Hoehl Gallery.

“We are here to celebrate our partnership with community organizations as we look for ways to impact our community,” said Larner Dean Richard L. Page, M.D., to the students, faculty, staff, and community members at the celebration. “Through this research, our students get meaningful experience in public health and community service.”

The Public Health Projects course teaches medical students to apply the principles and science of public health while working to address social determinants of health. The overall goal is for students to become better physicians through exposure to the kinds of public health challenges they will face in their future careers, because, as course director Jan Carney, M.D., M.P.H., associate dean for public health and health policy, reminded the students, “Every patient has a neighborhood, people they have social relationships with, and a context for their lives and situations.”

Read on for some highlights of the students’ scholarly work, and view photos from the Class of 2026 Public Health Projects Community Celebration.

Examining Vermonters’ Attitudes Towards Sugary Beverage Tax
Americans consume more added sugars from sweetened beverages than any other food source. Sugary beverage consumption increases risk for cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and obesity. Students working with the American Heart Association of Vermont surveyed Vermonters on their attitudes toward levying a sugary beverage excise tax to reduce consumption, and how use of the revenue might impact voter support. They concluded that more than half of Vermont voters support the tax, and those who are unsure would be more likely to support the tax if the revenue were earmarked for public health initiatives such as funding healthy school meals. The heart association will share this information with lawmakers to emphasize the support for a revenue source that can tackle obesity. “This was a cool experience. Our research provided information that impacts this tax and the health of Vermonters, and we might get to testify in front of the legislature,” said Mikaela Mari ’26.

Mapping the Adult Mental Health System of Care
Mental health care access has become a top priority in northwestern Vermont, with capacity issues and service gaps limiting access to appropriate and timely services. Intercept areas include crisis call lines, street outreach, police encounters, hospital emergency departments, in-patient care, and long-term psychiatric care. Students working with the United Way of Northwest Vermont developed a sequential intercept model map to assess resources, gaps, and pinch points as people move through the mental health care system. “We created a framework to show decision-makers the movement between different areas of the system, to identify barriers, needs, issues in quality of service, and systemic issues,” said Jeyna Doshi ’26, adding that the project gave the students “knowledge about resources in the area, so that when we are seeing patients, we know what’s available.”

Inclusive Sexual History for Sexually and Gender Diverse Individuals in Vermont
Health care intake forms typically use heterocentric language for sexual history gathering. This language can cause patients that identify as lesbian, gay, or transgender (LBGTQ+) to feel marginalized, leading to poor health outcomes. Students working with the Pride Center of Vermont conducted focus group sessions with LBGTQ+ people to discuss language in a health care intake survey for sexual history gathering. The focus group participants identified gender- and sexually-exclusive word choices, phrasing that is exclusive to patients for whom English is not a primary language, and lack of question clarity. The students used the findings to update the intake survey, and they presented the updated survey to guests at a LGBTQ+ Health Summit to gain feedback.

Recruitment of Primary Care Professionals in Rural Vermont
A dearth of primary care professionals in rural regions makes it difficult for older adults to access health care, creating a barrier to aging in place. Students working with Windham Aging and Southern Vermont Area Health Education Centers aimed to identify strategies to enhance recruitment of primary care professionals in rural Vermont. The study team conducted interviews with family medicine residents and doctor of nursing practice students. The team’s qualitative analysis revealed that primary care trainees ranked housing, political association, and access to schools as most important personal preferences in choosing whether to practice health care in a rural area, along with exposure to rural clinical training experience.

Family-Centered Perspectives on Barriers to School Attendance
Chronic absenteeism among middle school and high school students is linked to high rates of dropping out. A Howard Center survey found that 33 percent of students in the Burlington school district, many of whom are new Americans, were chronically absent. Students working with the Howard Center designed a script that was used to interview four Somali families recruited to discuss this issue. Themes from caregivers’ responses included communication breakdown between the school and families, racism as perceived systemic bias from school staff, and safety as a perceived lack of concern by the school. Caregivers identified the biggest positive influence on their child’s attendance as teachers who create an inclusive and inspiring learning environment. “This inspired me to look at how physicians can engage in the community. Education is directly linked to a person’s health,” said Moly Hurd ’26.

The students will have additional opportunities to present their projects at the 2023 UVM Health Equity Summit in October.

View photos from the Class of 2026 Public Health Projects Community Celebration.

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