It seems unlikely that a degree in Portuguese and Brazilian studies might land you in medicine - but that's exactly where Ben Brown '08 MD'12 is today, using his background in languages to improve medical interpreter services at local hospitals.
Brown's project and a handful of others are made possible by a grant from Area Health Education Centers, a national organization that provides health care access to underprivileged and vulnerable groups by connecting university science resources, local clinics and health care providers.
The Rhode Island branch of AHEC, one of more than 50 nationwide, has its program office at the Alpert Medical School, giving its students the opportunity to experience the challenges and rewards of working in the community health field. Students undergo primary health care training while using AHEC grants to plan and execute their own community health projects.
Brown described the process of applying for the grant as "pretty painless," saying it was like applying for any other type of research grant. With his foreign language background, he is currently conducting research at Rhode Island Hospital in conjunction with their Interpreter Service Department to analyze whether or not clinicians at Rhode Island Hospital are using medical interpreters appropriately - and if not, why they choose not to. Brown hopes to take the data from his surveys and ultimately use them to create programs to train clinicians to effectively serve patients with limited English proficiency.
"The idea is to create a model for institutions to assess their foreign language services, and then to respond with an interdisciplinary workshop that's targeted to the particular strengths and weaknesses of that institution," Brown said.
Brown described his project as "pretty independent," saying that his research is self-directed and self-motivated, even though it is in close collaboration with Rhode Island Hospital.
Though his project is not very closely tied to Alpert Medical School, Brown said that the experience has benefited his formal medical education through a "doctoring" course, which is offered by the Med School in conjunction with the AHEC program. In the course, students join a community mentor physician for one shift a week to see patients and practice clinical skills, like taking vital signs and performing patient interviews.
The doctoring course "is the closest way I tie (my work) into my curriculum," he said.
Brown originally became involved in AHEC as a way to pursue research in a field he enjoyed and still living in Providence. He said that while he was not originally interested in AHEC as a program, he now enjoys being involved with the organization.
"I realized that this was a group of people committed to the same kinds of things that I am," Brown said. He said he is dedicated to his project, however long it takes, and hopes it will benefit the hospital.
"We're in the very early stages of a long initial study, which hopefully will lead to years and years of new studies and policy development," Brown said, predicting that he would probably not be around to see the end of his project.
Along with improving access to medical care for disadvantaged patients, one of the major goals of AHEC is to encourage medical students to pursue primary health care fields, according to its Web site. While Brown is still somewhat unsure whether he hopes to pursue primary care as his specialty, Lauren Goddard MD '11 said she is almost certain she will.
Goddard's project is in conjunction with the Stanley Street Treatment and Resources organization, a group that provides mental health and substance abuse treatment. Goddard worked with the organization's Birth program, a live-in facility for chemically dependent pregnant and postpartum women and their children, according to the group's Web site.
Goddard said she appreciates the opportunity to interact with patients and provide health education through her AHEC project.
"I think those are important skills - patient education is a huge part of being a doctor," she said.
Goddard added that the chance to work with chemically dependent individuals reflects the real types of patients she would see in her professional career and that her work with AHEC would help her become more effective as a physician when treating people with drug addiction.