Communicate, Connect, Treat

WVU Health Sciences Center students learn to care for diverse populations

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Well-rounded. Accepting. Approachable. Understanding. Passionate.

These are the words WVU Health Sciences Center students use to describe the kind of healthcare providers they want to be in the future. And thanks to the thread of diversity weaving throughout all educational programs, students believe they are on their way to fulfilling those expectations.

“Learning about diversity gives us a better understanding of different cultures and broadens our perspectives,” said Jennifer Nguyen, a School of Dentistry student who was born in Vietnam. “Especially for healthcare professionals, who interact so closely with patients with such diverse backgrounds, understanding various cultures and traditions will give us an advantage to communicate, connect, and treat patients with better care and respect.”

Integrating diversity at WVU happens in three ways: through recruitment, admissions, and retention by boosting the mix of students and faculty members from diverse backgrounds; through the curriculum by incorporating diversity into each course; and through a blanket approach by cultivating a welcoming environment.

“Diversity within our class and curriculum will allow us to become well-rounded providers who can establish good relationships with our patients and provide proper care,” said Rebecca Furby, a School of Medicine student from Charles Town, West Virginia. “The better you understand a person, the better avenues of care can be sought. Therefore, diversity will greatly impact how we approach and deliver preventive care for our future patients.”

WVU School of Dentistry Associate Dean Shelia Price, DDS, EdD, works with representatives from the other health schools to create an inclusive environment – one that warmly welcomes all students and faculty members, no matter what gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status.

“Fostering inclusive learning communities is an essential step in achieving academic excellence,” Dr. Price said. “Our collaborative effort in creating educational opportunities to engage diverse groups has been an amazingly enriching experience. Promoting respect and mutual understanding despite cultural, economic, linguistic, or other differences in the educational environment is a professional necessity. There is a pressing need to prepare the current and future health workforce to meet the health needs of an increasingly diverse society.”

Health Sciences Center students are looking forward to being contributing members of that workforce.

“I want to know how to approach those individuals who will one day sit in my chair,” School of Dentistry student Tyler Crowe said. “Coming from a small, rural town in southern West Virginia, I was limited in my knowledge of other cultures. My awareness of diversity during my time at WVU is preparing me to be a better healthcare professional by providing me with experience in treating patients from all over the map. I have had the opportunity to learn how to handle language barriers, physical limitations, and cultural restrictions.”

All of WVU’s health education programs need to address health disparities within minority groups, according to Price.

“The burden of numerous diseases and health problems disproportionately impacts minorities. For example, the prevalence of diabetes is higher among African American and Hispanic/Latino adult populations by comparison to their majority counterparts,” Price said. “Diversity and cultural information should be incorporated throughout the curriculum, not as a single course, but in each course.”

While the Health Sciences Center is making strides toward an inclusive environment, the effort is still a work in progress. Raul “Rudy” Sanchez, a School of Medicine student from York, Pennsylvania, has noticed Morgantown doesn’t have the ethnic diversity that a larger city would have. “There are a few students in our class from different backgrounds, but I would like to see more clubs that have a cultural focus,” he said.

Nguyen and Crowe both cited various accents as challenges for all students. “Because West Virginia is not as diverse as some other states, people here are not used to the different accents, so communication with people from international backgrounds may be more difficult,” Nguyen said.

Crowe said, “Within our class, we have found that some of the people from other countries have a hard time understanding those of us with a southern dialect.”

To address these obstacles, Price and her colleagues in other disciplines offer presentations and hands-on activities that promote diversity. The programs provide opportunities for students to develop cultural awareness, examine stereotypes, and recognize biases – all with the goal of educating sensitive individuals who will deliver quality healthcare.

Ultimately, diversity means looking past differences and seeing commonalities. When that happens, Nguyen said, “We can all connect, unite as one, and grow stronger together.”