Being the change
Unique medical school program links community health with individual health
For Diego Vargas, the “aha moment” came when he was as an undergraduate working in one of UC Davis’s student-run health clinics, serving primarily uninsured and often undocumented patients. Originally from Peru, and an undocumented immigrant himself, Vargas witnessed how health-care disparities damage low-income communities in California.
“I saw a lot of poverty in Peru but couldn’t even imagine there were similar situations in the U.S.,” says Vargas. “Seeing this for the first time shocked me and made me think about why I wanted to become a doctor. It really pushed me in my studies.”
Vargas is now a first-year medical student in the Transforming Education and Community Health for Medical Students (TEACH-MS) Program at UC Davis, which prepares a new generation of physicians to care for medically underserved residents in urban settings. Six students are enrolled in the program, now in its third year at UC Davis.
The program is a natural fit for Vargas, who wants to help both individuals and their communities.
“In an urban environment, you can’t simply treat patients in isolation,” Vargas says. “You have to understand where they’re coming from – where they live.”
“We are looking at the community and saying, Okay, what can we do to help this person and also help the many others who are just like him?"
— Diego Vargas
While the program is strong in fundamental medical education, it goes the extra mile to teach students how to disseminate health information while being sensitive to cultural and economic obstacles.
“We’re trying to bring specific health messages to entire communities,” says Vargas. “By addressing issues in the community, we hope that will narrow down to the individual. But it has to be realistic. If we emphasize nutrition, we can’t tell people to eat foods that are out of their price range.”
Given the prevalence of type 2 diabetes, nutritional education is high on the list. But there are other health issues that disproportionately strike urban neighborhoods such as cancer, heart disease and drug abuse. The program provides students with the tools to address these issues on both the community and individual levels to improve overall health.
“We are looking at the community and saying, ‘Okay, what can we do to help this person and also help the many others who are just like him?’,” says Vargas.
TEACH-MS students learn by doing. For example, they visit food banks and other support programs to understand their important roles in community health.
In the immediate future, they will focus on Oak Park, a primarily Latino and African American community in Sacramento. Students will become a part of the neighborhood: learning about local health issues, developing relationships with community leaders and creating a response plan. By gaining a thorough understanding of the community, they hope to have a greater impact on residents’ health.
“We need to understand what affects an individual’s health,” notes Vargas. “Diabetes is not only caused by what a person eats or how much they exercise, there are social factors to consider. What if they just lost their job? That can bring a lot of stress, cause poor eating and affect their children.”
Ultimately, the program seeks to train physicians to take these and other factors into account, share critical health education and provide the personal care so important to good health.
“As an undergrad, I minored in sociology, and it really taught me how social aspects affect health,” says Vargas. This program gives me the tools to treat the patient and address those larger issues. It’s how I want to practice medicine.”