Nursing student compares health care systems here, abroad

February 11, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- When Mike Gutierrez learned there was an opening for a student to participate in a study-abroad trip to Costa Rica, he didn’t have to think twice about signing up.

“It was a great opportunity I couldn’t resist,” said Gutierrez, a sophomore nursing major from Marietta, Georgia. Shortly before the end of the fall 2014 semester, he and 14 other Penn State students boarded a plane to Costa Rica, where they spent a week learning about the country’s health care system.

Offered as part of the Comparative Health Systems course (HPA 401) in the health policy and administration program, the trip was also available as a one-credit independent studies experience for students not enrolled in the class. While most of the participants were HPA majors, four (including Gutierrez) were enrolled in other majors.

Two things made the trip especially appealing to Gutierrez. First, with his Hispanic heritage, he was excited about traveling to Central America.

“My mother was born in the Dominican Republic, and Hispanic culture has always been a part of my life,” he said. “So I’m very comfortable in that environment.”

Second, Gutierrez was eager to learn about the health care system in a developing country. In Costa Rica, he got a firsthand view of the public health system — ranked by the United Nations in the top 20 worldwide and first in Latin America.

“The U.S. health care system is very business oriented, and patients are often little more than numbers,” he said. “In Costa Rica, health care is a team effort and very family focused. I believe if the American system could adopt some of the same features, our patient care and recovery rates would improve.”

One of those features is the practice of using trained health care workers known as ATAPs (the literal name is “técnico de atención primaria,” which loosely translates to “primary care/attention technician”). Gutierrez and his traveling companions accompanied the ATAPs on their visits to patients in their homes.

“ATAPs are like medically trained social workers,” said Gutierrez. “They go out into the community to assess health and safety risks, and provide basic preventive care, such as immunizations. This profession is considered quite honorable in Costa Rica, reflecting the welcoming and unassuming nature of its people.”

Gutierrez was also impressed by the Hospital National de Niños (National Children’s Hospital) in the capital city of San José. As he wrote in a blog entry during the trip, “(The) desire to (get well) is better facilitated in a warm, inspiring surrounding with a strong supporting foundation from loved ones.” The hospital’s open-air setting, ample natural lighting and compassionate staff help to make the National Children’s Hospital “one of the premier health care facilities in the world,” said Gutierrez.

Once he completes his nursing degree, Gutierrez hopes to pursue a career that also makes use of his ethnic heritage and Spanish-speaking skills — perhaps as a traveling nurse or translator.

“As a Hispanic, I would like to possibly serve as a liaison for the Spanish-speaking community on some level,” he said. “As a health care professional, I hope to have a positive effect on all patients regardless of their socioeconomic status or living environment — just as the ATAPs in Costa Rica do on a daily basis.”

Read more about the HPA 401 embedded trip to Costa Rica here.

Last Updated February 12, 2015