When Cynthia Haq was a medical student, her professor discouraged her from working as a primary care physician for the poor. Her friends and colleagues called her “crazy,” because she would hardly make any money.
But Haq’s experience with poverty during her childhood motivated her to continue on that path. She saw children were so poor they did not have enough food and clothes.
“Even as a young child, I thought that was wrong,” Haq said. “Everyone, whether poor or wealthy should have the rights of health care.”
To together students who are motivated to helping serve those who live in poverty, Haq began the University of Wisconsin Training in Urban Medicine and Public Health program in 2009. Now the program’s director, she has helped nearly 70 UW medical students fill gaps in health care services for the urban poor.
TRIUMPH has recruited 69 students between 2010 and 2016. Out of these, 50 have graduated and worked in areas where at least 50 percent of urban patients live in poverty, Haq said. An additional 40 former students are now pursuing primary care specialities.
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Haq said in addition to gaining medical skills, students become more connected with their community.
“They’re learning to become doctors and also extra skills to be able to be a community leader,” Haq said.
TRIUMPH recruits 16 third- and fourth-year medical students annually. Since the job is so challenging, Haq said she has to pick students who are highly motivated and demonstrate commitment to work with underserved populations.
The program is based in Milwaukee because students get a chance to work in a diverse and dynamic community and make contributions to solve the complex urban health problems. Milwaukee is a “majority-minority community” with 40 percent black people and 30 percent Hispanic people, Haq said.
“These students want to become doctors because they want to serve people in need,” Haq said. “They should not just say they’re interested but actually have done things already, such as volunteer [in the] Peace Corps.”
Working as physicians in those areas requires not only medical skills, but also skills for helping patients with complex biomedical and psychosocial needs and knowledge of community resources, she said.
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The program starts with a two-week intensive course. Students meet with artists, musicians and dancers in the community and learn about the history of Milwaukee, why Milwaukee communities are segregated and how segregation affects people’s health. Students are then matched with 35 community organizations in the city and conduct individual health improvement projects that target issues like gun violence and childhood obesity.
TRIUMPH participant Kerianne Fullin said working at a Milwaukee community clinic was a profound experience as she met many patients suffering from homelessness, violence, poverty and disabilities.
“It’s really important to provide space for them to communicate what their major concerns are,” Fullin said.
Haq said when dealing with patients who live in poverty, it is important to understand they often have complex social needs. Psychologically, they have suffered more stress, which might result in health problems like high blood pressure and diabetes.
Students are also supposed to connect patients with appropriate community resources to help further solve their problems, Haq said.
“The more you understand the context, the less you’re likely to be judgmental with the patients,” Haq said. “Otherwise, they’re not going to trust you.”
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Haq said one TRIUMPH student who worked in a community health organization in south Milwaukee found many Hispanic families were suffering from obesity and diabetes because they could not afford healthy food.
To ensure the community could eat healthfully, the student trained families on how to make healthy food even on a low budget and worked with local grocery stores to offer vegetables instead of fatty foods.
“It’s a win-win program beneficial to the health organization, students and the whole community,” Haq said.
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