Although health care disparities in the U.S. have existed for centuries, increased research on underserved populations since the early 2000s has made knowledge about disparities more apparent.
Research before the COVID-19 pandemic indicated that people of color fared worse than their white counterparts across various health measures, including infant mortality and prevalence of chronic conditions. Such disparities were exacerbated during the pandemic.
With increased awareness about health care disparities, premed students have increasingly engaged in research and clinical opportunities to improve the health of underserved populations. This is great news. As a result, many premeds are writing about their interests in helping the underserved on their medical school applications.
One way to stand out in discussing your mission to improve the health of underserved communities is to find specific underserved populations and specific health care issues that you want to improve. Here are five underserved populations, specific issues they may face and how you can get involved as a premed.
People With Low Socioeconomic Status
Individuals from low socioeconomic status backgrounds have a difficult time affording health care services. They may be uninsured, qualify for insurance through Medicaid or pay for basic private health insurance. If they have insurance coverage, the plans have more limited providers and services as well as high out-of-pocket expenses.
Already strapped for cash, individuals from low socioeconomic backgrounds are reluctant to see a doctor because of the significant expense. In acute situations, they may feel symptoms like chest pain but not see a doctor until symptoms become too severe to withstand, often resulting in a more serious condition. In the long run, individuals with low socioeconomic status may forgo important preventative health measures and not see a doctor regularly for chronic disease maintenance.
[READ: Volunteering in Underserved Communities: What Premeds Should Know.]
Individuals from low SES face other barriers to good health, including unsafe housing, neighborhood crime, inadequate transportation, limited availability of healthy food choices and lack of places to exercise.
Premed students can help these individuals by volunteering and conducting clinical work in these communities. They can serve as tutors, mentors and coaches, incorporating health education into these activities. They can also work in clinics and hospitals in poor communities.
People of Color, Immigrants and Refugees
According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research data, members of racial and ethnic minority groups in the U.S. often experience higher rates of illness, higher rates of death and lower life expectancy than white Americans. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Black people, Hispanics and Native Americans were more likely to be hospitalized with the novel coronavirus.
When shadowing doctors or working in clinical settings, premeds should understand how cultural beliefs influence patients’ decision-making and preferences. People of color often have different perceptions and expectations about health care that are influenced by their cultures. Premed students can learn more about cultural competency and think about how they will tailor patient care and treatment recommendations based on a patient’s cultural beliefs.
[Read: Social Determinants of Health — What Premeds Should Know]
Immigrants and refugees face unique issues related to navigating the U.S. health care system. They may not know how to obtain health insurance, let alone how to see a doctor. Premed students can volunteer at refugee centers to help refugees navigate residency status applications, the education system for children and the health care system.
Often, there are language barriers when immigrants see health care providers. One great opportunity for premeds is to serve as a language translator in clinical settings.
Individuals With Disabilities
Individuals with mental, physical or developmental disabilities, including visual and hearing impairments, often have a harder time accessing health care. They may need transportation accommodations to a health care facility or be unaware that they need medical help.
One popular activity among premeds who are interested in working with individuals with disabilities is teaching or coaching children with disabilities, such as volunteering for the Special Olympics. This is a great way to understand the behavioral health component of pediatrics.
Premed students can also serve as caregivers for an individual with disabilities, helping them with daily tasks. Finally, premeds can be involved with public policy and advocacy for individuals with disabilities, striving for more accessibility and greater inclusion.
Rural areas are sparsely populated and often lack nearby clinics and hospitals. Even if a person in a rural community lives near a primary care clinic, there is often no tertiary hospital or specialty center available. Therefore, a patient suffering from a complicated disease or life-threatening condition must travel far to receive medical treatment.
Additionally, there is a doctor shortage in rural areas, with the U.S. Government Accountability Office predicting a deficit of 20,000 doctors in rural communities by 2025.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, more medical providers made telehealth available, increasing health care access to rural populations. Premed students can scribe for physicians virtually or build telehealth platforms with digital health companies.
Also, premeds can volunteer in rural areas, educating the public about health issues at local fairs, serving as an EMT or traveling with mobile clinics.
Homeless individuals and others facing housing insecurity are often among those who lack the finances to afford health care and frequently are food-insecure.
Many homeless individuals suffer from drug addiction and alcohol use disorders, which can have serious medical consequences such as drug overdoses and liver damage. If they live in climates with extreme weather conditions, they can suffer dehydration or hypothermia.
[READ: U.S. Health Care System Challenges: What Every Premed Student Should Know.]
Premed students can volunteer in homeless shelters or with organizations and initiatives that provide them medical care.
That’s what Ava Jafarpour did after immigrating to the U.S. on her own with money she saved from working. As a premed undergraduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles, she often had to make difficult decisions based on limited finances.
“Some semesters, I had to pick between paying for rent or paying for classes,” she recalls. “Since I was working at the UCLA gym as a personal trainer, I went to the gym to take showers. Living out of my car opened my eyes to the struggles of the unhoused population.”
Because of her personal struggles, she volunteered at a local homeless shelter, where she organized a program to cook fresh meals for residents.
“I started to incorporate plant-based meals into our recipes,” Jafarpour says. “I realized that although cooking healthy meals could increase the residents’ well-being, it did not end the cycle of poverty.”
She continued to work with the homeless shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic, driving around Los Angeles to find food and personal protective equipment. She also raised money to help the shelter provide mental health services.
This work allowed Jafarpour to explore ways to improve access to care for the underserved and to gain skills to establish programs that reduce health care barriers. She wants to continue working to improve the health of homeless individuals throughout her medical career.
“I want to encourage premeds, especially those going through hardships, to use their struggles as a platform in helping the underserved communities and never give up on their dreams,” she says.
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5 Underserved Populations Med School Hopefuls Can Work With originally appeared on usnews.com