School of Medicine Students “Hear the Voiceless” During Health Justice Week

Posted in GUMC Stories

From March 21-25, physician-advocates in training from the School of Medicine’s Health Justice Track (new window) celebrated Health Justice Week by making visits to Capitol Hill, presenting their Advocacy Projects and participating in a plenary lecture given by Emily A. Benfer, JD, founder and director of the Health Justice Project at Loyola University Chicago School of Law.

The theme of the week was “A Call to Action: Addressing Health Inequity” said Eileen Moore, MD (new window), associate professor of medicine, associate dean for community education and advocacy at Georgetown University Medical Center and director of the Health Justice Scholars’ Track.

 “There Is More to Health Than Health Care”

Benfer, who spent several years working at the Georgetown University Law Center Federal Legislation and Administrative Clinic, has dedicated her career to rooting out injustice in underserved communities. In 2010, she founded the Health Justice Project at Loyola, which is a medical-legal partnership clinic between the School of Law and Erie Family Health Center. Students of law, social work, public health and medicine all collaborate at the clinic to “identify and address social and legal issues that negatively affect the health of low-income individuals.”

“There is more to health than health care,” said Benfer, addressing the audience in W. Proctor Harvey Amphitheater on March 21. “Health care is designed to address acute health problems, while health is rooted in the social and environmental factors that people live on a day-to-day basis.”

Benfer cited examples such as lead paint and plumbing problems in low-income housing, poverty resulting in food insecurity and misguided laws that lead to the eviction of domestic violence victims for summoning police.

One Health Justice Project client was told that the mold in her apartment was her fault for being “dirty” when it was actually the result of plumbing issues. The landlord refused to make repairs even after the client’s son developed a debilitating cough from the mold. The Health Justice Project forced the landlord to make repairs and secured several months of back rent.

“You are health justice champions because you hear the voiceless. You will see the invisible and you will stand while others would lie down. I challenge you to secure the dignity, humanity and justice for every patient that you treat,” said Benfer.

Health Justice in Action

For second-year medical students, Health Justice Week meant heading to Capitol Hill to advocate on behalf of causes they are passionate about. Cathy Mackey (M’18) was part of a group that advocated for the Childhood Cancer Survivorship, Treatment, Access and Research (STAR) Act (H.R. 3381). The legislation aims to advance funding for childhood cancer research and treatments as well as provide resources for survivors and their families.

“The act would create a biorepository where childhood cancer specimens and samples will be studied,” said Mackey. “Childhood cancers are very different from adult cancers most of the time, so we need to know more.”

Mackey said her team got started by reaching out to their own representatives. “I’m from New York, and we had individuals from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Ohio, so we reached out where we were constituents,” she said. “And we were able to set up three meetings to tell these representatives about how great this bill is and ask them to support it. “

Mackey’s group also asked the representatives to join the Childhood Cancer Caucus, which introduced the Childhood Cancer STAR Act.

Despite never having lobbied Congress before, Mackey found the process “relatively easy” and said she and her classmates would likely return to the Hill throughout their careers.

“The great thing about the Health Justice Track at Georgetown is that it gives us this forum in which we can really learn how to be advocates for our patients, not just in the hospital or the clinic, but in the real world,” she said.  

Health Justice Scholars in Fellowship

Fourth-year Health Justice Scholars closed out the week with their Advocacy Project poster presentations. Some scholars, including Versha Patel (M’16), choose their Advocacy Project topic early in their medical school careers. 

“My classmate and I paired up my first year of medical school to do a project on the HPV vaccine, so this was just a continuation of something that had sparked my interest early on,” she said.

Patel’s research, titled “Why My Son?” examines gender disparities in the uptake of the HPV vaccine. Though it is usually associated with cervical cancer, HPV can cause genital warts and other types of cancer in both males and females. Patel and her team pinpointed social, medical and policy barriers keeping boys from getting vaccinated.

“One of the most interesting things we found was that parents are a big barrier keeping boys from getting the vaccine. They either thought that their sons weren’t at risk or didn’t want to face the thought of their child becoming sexually active,” said Patel.

The team ultimately recommended increased education around the HPV vaccine and suggested modifying media outreach and advertising to reflect the reality about boys and HPV.

Other presentations ranged from the study of beliefs about end-of-life care in the Washington, D.C., African-American community to vision screening and barriers to care in D.C. public school students.

“It was so nice to get together in fellowship with others who are committed to health justice and to delve into the diverse and important topics that there are in health justice,” said Patel.

By Leigh Ann Renzulli
GUMC Communications