‘Access to Health’ project brings university resources to communities in need

August 2, 2013 by Megan Carlson
obstetrics training in ethiopia

A trainer brought in by the Access to Health Project teaches Ethiopian healthcare professionals how to manage emergency births.

Juliet Sorensen, law professor and founder of the Access to Health Project at Northwestern’s Center for Global Health, gazes proudly at a slideshow on her computer screen one Tuesday afternoon. She is viewing a picture of two Ethiopian men deep in conversation– a standing man gently gesticulating to the other who sits a few inches away soaking in every word. The portrait is of one healthcare provider teaching another what he has learned in an intensive obstetrics training course– a project conceived of and implemented by Access to Health in 2012.

“To see one communicating to another what he had learned, in this hands-on way, was incredibly rewarding,” Sorensen says.

trainers described in opening paragraph

One healthcare professional explains to another what he had just learned in obstetrics training

The Access to Health Project, which is working in the Dominican Republic in 2013, is an interdisciplinary project that aims to sustainably solve global health problems. Students in the Health and Human Rights class taught by Sorensen– which is open to Law, Kellogg and Master’s in Public Health students– identify an intervention that targets the health needs of a global community.

Bringing together minds from across the university is one of the special aspects of the project.

“You have people at Northwestern, both at the student level and the faculty level, with profound expertise in their particular areas,” Sorensen says. “To bring them together under one umbrella is to be able to partner with a community in a much more meaningful way.”

The project follows the Global Community Health Collaborative model utilized by nonprofit Peace Care. The model follows several steps: a needs assessment, the development of a sustainable intervention, project implementation and post-completion evaluation. Students in Sorensen’s class start by conducting preliminary research into the health needs of a particular community. Several students then travel to the community to meet with a community advisory board– comprising local healthcare workers, educators and other stakeholders– and observe first-hand what healthcare needs are most pressing.

“The partnership is very local, very grassroots,” Sorensen says. “Community understanding and community buy-in are essential.”

Students who travel abroad relay the information they’ve learned back to the classroom to augment their understanding of the community’s health needs. Armed with new information and community input, students plan an intervention, which is then enacted in the community with the help of a liaison (usually a peace corps volunteer familiar with the community).

“It was a great experience to be able to complement the research here in Chicago with being on the ground in the Dominican Republic,” says Mark Khayat, a Kellogg graduate student who traveled to the Dominican Republic in March with his classmates and Dr. Shannon Galvin, Director of Clinical Programs & Training for the Center for Global Health.

The health administration at the Bonga, Ethiopia site pose for a picture

The health administration at the Bonga, Ethiopia site pose for the camera

In 2011, the project worked in the town of Bonga, Ethiopia. Statistical research, tours of area hospitals, examinations of local infrastructure, and discussions with the community advisory board alerted students to the alarmingly high rates of maternal mortality in the area. Students then developed a plan to conduct an evidence-based obstetrics training for community healthcare workers, midwives and birth care attendants to address various emergency situations, including hemorrhage, obstructed labor and breach births. The project is now in its evaluation phase and Sorensen says she looks forward to seeing the results.

Access to Health will next turn its attention to the community of Guaymate in the Dominican Republic–one of many tiny plantation villages called “bateyes” in the region. The project is currently in its “needs assessment” phase. Six students visited the village in March to examine the community’s health issues, which include high incidence of HIV, cholera and maternal mortality. The issues in Guaymate are unique– it is a region that is inhabited by a large population of migrant workers from neighboring Haiti, many of whom have inaccurate documentation and poor health records– but the project will still focus on engaging community members at a grassroots level.

Khayat says that witnessing first-hand the community’s desire to improve their homes was the most rewarding part of his experience.

“It’s a tiny community in the middle of the Dominican Republic that is plagued by lack of opportunities, by infectious diseases, by racism issues,” he says. “But the community members we engaged with– they’re proud of their community. They love to live there. They could choose to go elsewhere but that’s their home and they will work tirelessly to improve their situation…It was really heartwarming.”

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