Students team up to improve Colombian public policy

April 3, 2018 By eastern247
Picture: Students posing around a snowman.

It’s a research project more than a half-century in the making.

A group of Eastern Washington University Master of Public Health (MPH) students is collaborating with medical students from a university in Bogotá, Colombia, to help the South American country recover from 50 years of civil war.

The students will assess how to best deliver health services to rural areas shattered by the brutal conflict. Their work will result in a jointly written public policy proposal for Colombia’s legislative body.

“It is truly a once in a lifetime opportunity,” says Victoria Senechal, lead MPH student working on the project. It is research she calls “by far my favorite, most challenging and most rewarding.”

This is also a once in a lifetime opportunity for six medical students from Juan N. Corpas University in Bogotá. In addition to teaming up with the EWU students on the rural health needs assessment for their home country, they are spending nearly three months at Eastern while learning about America’s health care system.

“Things here are completely different,” says Luisa Mejía Roa, one of the visiting medical students. The Colombian students are interning at various MultiCare Rockwood clinics around the region.

Although never near the actual fighting, the importance of this project hits close to home for Mejía Roa and her classmates because they grew up knowing Colombia was being torn apart.

Mejía Roa, who is spending her days at the MultiCare Rockwood Medical Lake Clinic, says her people “need a lot of help. They need psychological help, they need medical help. They also need help finding jobs and a path to go through life.”

What started in 1964 as peasant revolt, the 50-year battle pitted the Colombian government against a leftist rebel group known as the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The FARC appealed to those who felt disenfranchised by a long history of repression.

According to a study by Colombia’s National Centre for Historical Memory, 220,000 people, mostly civilians, died in the conflict. The fighting also displaced more than five million citizens before a peace deal emerged in 2016.

“I’ve always had the hope that Colombia can change,” says Mejía Roa. “I really hope that Colombia someday will find a way to change, and we can stop poverty.”

The first step in that direction is to improve access and health outcomes in post-conflict rural communities. It is in this setting the EWU and Corpas students find themselves facing a great challenge.

“This is a great opportunity to work with global partners and obtain their perspective of health services and delivery methods,” says Professor Mary Ann Keogh Hoss, Health Services Program Director at EWU. “Exposure to their cultural needs is an eye opening experience.”

In May, Keogh Hoss will join five Eastern MPH students as they head to head to Colombia with the medical students to conduct a field assessment in the small town of Algeciras. They’ll be joined by five nursing students from Juan N. Corpas to identify people impacted by the war and identify their needs.

“From the student perspective, they are working in a truly interprofessional manner sharing medicine, nursing and public health views while looking at individuals and the system as a whole.”

Before the field assessment, students from the partner universities are participating in an online course to prepare them for the work ahead. The unique partnership resulted from a 100,000 Strong in the Americas Innovation Fund grant awarded to EWU and Juan N. Corpas last year.

It’s a dream assignment for Senechal, the MPH student who one day hopes to be a rural physician in Washington.

“It is practical, applicable and personal,” she says. “It is focused on helping save lives and improve the quality of life of a vulnerable population. It combines all of my favorite things: health care, rural populations, public health, medicine, assessing and helping address population needs, and using policy to impact infrastructure.”