Gonzalo Bearman, M.D., M.P.H. and Mike Stevens, M.D., M.P.H.

Lighting a Fire

Health Brigades Expand Student & Residents' Perspectives

Each year, Virginia Commonwealth University medical students and Department of Internal Medicine residents participate in health brigades, serving as a reminder of their impending moral obligations both domestically and abroad.

“Students and residents who participate in this program may have some sense of the issues involved — like poverty and disparities between the rich and poor — but when they see them firsthand it lights a fire in them,” said Mike Stevens, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of internal medicine.

In 2008, Stevens and his colleague, Gonzalo Bearman, M.D., also an associate professor of internal medicine, began leading medical brigades to the Li Hicaca region of rural Honduras, where people suffer from illnesses associated with poor water quality and a lack of basic health care.

The two said their primary motivation for establishing and leading the brigade centers on basic human needs.

“An underlying motive or belief that we have is that health care — whether it’s in the U.S. or elsewhere — is a fundamental human right,” Bearman said. “That’s the way we see it, and we feel very strongly about trying to help people that don’t have access.”

In association with the non-profit organization the Honduras Outreach Medical Brigade Relief Effort (HOMBRE), as well as the Department of Internal Medicine’s Global Health & Health Disparities Program (GH2DP), students and residents provide direct medical care and participate in public health projects, as well. To date, over 50 students and residents have been involved in the program, with over 4,000 adult medical consultations having been performed.

Those learners who are interested in  research have the opportunity to participate in formal  research studies, and program participants have presented at local, national and international conferences, as well as published in peer-reviewed journals. A major longitudinal public health project involves dispensing water filters produced by local artisans, each of which produce clean drinking water for an entire household for approximately two years. To date, over 150 water filters have been distributed with the incidence of diarrheal illness decreasing in the La Hicaca area by approximately half.

“To be able to go back and actually address health issues in these settings is an amazing thing,” Stevens said. “It has allowed me to stay involved in these issues by serving people and trying to improve their health. That’s a wonderful opportunity to have.”

Ultimately, the two would like to establish safe and sustainable water sources in the region and then focus on permanently improving health conditions. They aim to spark students’ and residents' interests in global health along the way.

More about the Department of Internal Medicine’s Global Health & Health Disparities Program can be found at http://www.gh2dp.vcu.edu/Home.html.