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Geisel Urban Health Scholars Explore Community Health in Boston

Geisel’s Urban Health Scholars Program connects medical students to urban communities with underserved minority populations in Boston, MA and Manchester, NH. Service trips to these locations equip medical students with the tools and knowledge they need to become both effective care providers and advocates for change. 

Last year, because of COVID-19 restrictions, the scholars were unable to travel. But this year with meticulous planning by co-leaders Raven Bennett ’24 and Lily Greene ’24, they visited the family medicine residency program at Lawrence General Hospital (LGH), a community hospital in Lawrence, MA, Boston Medical Center, and Boston Healthcare for the Homeless. The Global Health Scholars accompanied them for some of the events and also planned their own global health-related activities.  

Their first stop was LGH. Lawrence, one of the most under resourced cities in the state, has a large Spanish-speaking immigrant population and the hospital’s family medicine residency training program is the first accredited program of its kind in the nation.  

“There is a strong connection to Geisel alumni who have done their residency training there and who also work there,” Bennett says. “We toured the local neighborhood then returned for a presentation from several residents, including Geisel alumni, Tlalli Moya-Smith MED ’20, Tala Radejko MED ’21, and family medicine attending Andrew Smith MED ’04 about providing good community-based care along with a question and answer session. Lawrence has an incredible family medicine residency program that values both being part of the community and serving their patients in their native language.” 

Housing instability is one of the social determinants of health among low-income households for both children and adults. Though homelessness and frequent moving usually define instability, the strain of falling behind on rent or mortgage payments is seldom included, yet it is the most prevalent form of instability. To learn more about its impact—inadequate access to healthcare and adverse health outcomes—the scholars met with Megan Sandel MED’96 whose research and work focuses on the intersection of how these financial hardships and housing assistance affect health.  

“Dr. Sandel talked about what she thought was important for us to know as future providers—such as thinking about different aspects of housing instability and related health outcomes,” Bennett says. “One thing that really stood out for me was when she started this study, she said people either didn’t believe or know that social determinants impacted health.” 

Sandel’s study resulted in the implementation of a housing assistance program in Boston that can be replicated elsewhere. 

“It was really cool to see how scholarship can be a form of social activism and create systemic change that helps patients. I think individual patient interactions are important, but we also need to think about how our patients are living and how we can change that context to improve their wellbeing—and at Geisel, we do learn about social determinants of health,” Bennett says. 

At Boston Healthcare for the Homeless, an organization that has for 35 years ensured equitable access to quality healthcare for the city’s homeless population, one of the scholars, Mary Harris ’25, who previously worked at the organization’s outdoor clinic, gave her fellow medical students a tour of the facility. Bennett says they were able to talk with a patient who shared his experience and also met with a nurse who has worked there for 20 years. 

Their trip ended with an alumni dinner with several former Geisel Urban Health Scholars, Conversations with alumni centered on how what they learned as scholars contributed to their work as physicians.  

“I was struck by the difference between last year’s virtual events and being able to talk with people in person, including patients—it inspired and motivated everyone on the trip to continue working toward our goal of being providers in an urban context and serving underserved communities,” she said. 

“These opportunities that allow us to go into cities and meet the providers who are working there are an important part of our education” she adds. “It’s a good complement to the education we receive at Geisel and allows us to envision the change we want to make in the world.