Global Health minor students prepare for fieldwork in Senegal

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – As students in the Global Health minor prepare to leave for fieldwork this summer that will expand their knowledge of issues affecting the health of populations across the globe, many are anticipating ways in which their academic preparation will be applied during their in-country experience.

They will be engaging in medical and public health rotations and activities with physicians, nurses, health care professionals and students overseas, who will teach them about diseases and patients’ needs in their communities. 

Many are interested in seeing for themselves how health care issues, such as HIV and malaria, present in other countries. Across numerous courses, these students have been studying disease prevalence, health behaviors and cultural issues.

“This minor really aims to develop students' understanding and knowledge of health issues across world populations,” said Dana Naughton, director of the Global Health minor program. “Students selected into the program take required courses in epidemiology, global health issues, and approved supplemental courses that further expose them to disease prevalence, and local and global resources to improve health care and health status.”

Additionally, understanding the culture of where they are headed is key to making the most of their experience.

“The fieldwork experience is not just about the health care,” said Fatou Seck Sarr, director of internal medicine at a hospital in Senegal. “We want them to know about the Senegal culture. In order for anyone to treat somebody, they have to understand the country’s culture and lifestyle.”

Seck visited the University Park campus in April to help students prepare for their trip.

The Global Health minor is a 21-credit minor that has, as a capstone, a six-credit summer fieldwork experience in one of three African countries.

For six weeks this summer, undergraduate students in a variety of majors will observe health care practices, needs, and systems in Senegal, South Africa or Tanzania. The Senegal program includes both undergraduates from University Park campus and medical students from the Penn State College of Medicine.

Rhonda BeLue, associate professor of health policy and administration and public demography, will accompany five undergraduate students and three medical students to Senegal. She invited Seck to Penn State to give the students an opportunity to help them learn about the culture to which they will soon be exposed.

During Seck’s visit, she spoke to students about her work and provided an overview of the health care system in Senegal. She addressed some of Senegal’s major health care issues and gave a preview of the types of work students would be doing during their visit.

As the head of internal medicine at M’bour Hospital, Seck oversees most of the facility’s departments and specialties, including the HIV/AIDS unit, gynecology, dermatology, psychiatry and emergency department .She also oversees the general practitioners and treats non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure. M’Bour Hospital is the largest in the city of 200,000, and treats the majority if its residents.

During the fieldwork experience, each undergraduate student will be matched with physicians at M’bour Hospital according to his or her medical interests. They will look at health data, do clinical rotations in different departments in the hospital, and visit villages during the weekends to witness and assist with free health screenings. Students will also visit social service agencies to learn how social workers interact with residents.

The medical students will also be paired with physicians and have opportunities for hands-on experience at the hospital, such as taking patients’ vital signs and cleaning wounds, Seck said.

Additionally, students will be able to visit villages on weekends. They will be encouraged to try local foods, wear native clothing, and even take dance lessons as a way for them to be immersed in the country’s culture.

“People must understand how we live and how we eat, to understand the types of diseases we have,” Seck said.

For example, because white rice is a food staple in Senegal, diabetes has become a large problem. People with diabetes typically should limit their consumption of starches, such as white rice. For people living in Senegal, treatment is not as simple as telling them to stop eating white rice, as it has cultural significance.

Skin issues are also a concern in Senegal due to a variety of factors, including street conditions and fishermen who work on the coast.

These health issues need to be treated specially, Seck said. They involve research and understanding.

“It’s extremely important for schools worldwide to have these types of experiences,” Seck said. “Medicine is universal. The United States may have different health care systems than Senegal, but when it comes to treating patients, the knowledge is the same. The goal is the same.”

Moses Akintunde, a senior majoring in Biobehavioral Health from Bronx, New York, will be going to Senegal in June.

“Senegal was my fieldwork location of choice after careful consideration of the unique programs, project coordinators and host institutions offered at each site,” he said. “Working with Dr. BeLue has been a collaboration desired for quite some time as we previously discussed my research interests. Moreover, meeting with Dr. Seck and learning of the research she does further validated my decision.”

While in Senegal, Akintunde intends to focus a majority of his time on conducting community health initiatives, helping the local residents manage their conditions, and effectively decrease the incidence of preventable diseases.

“The anticipation of the global health fieldwork this summer has me on the edge of my seat, and I am prepared for the eye opening experience of what public health fieldwork entails,” he said. “The opportunity this summer would be an invaluable asset in terms of my career exploration and opportunities presented post-graduation.”

Last Updated May 26, 2016