Reducing health disparities through community engagement

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San Joaquin County, where I come from, is a county of juxtaposition: holding in one hand enormous challenges in medicine and environmental racism, and in the other new opportunities for health care. To address these challenges, we need leaders in health care to work with underserved, underrepresented communities. Through a research project with San Joaquin high school students, I am working to address these various challenges to positively affect nearly 800,000 future residents of San Joaquin.

Through my summer research project, I found:

  • 61.7 percent of the South Asian population of San Joaquin is at risk for heart disease
  • 3.3 percent of the South Asian population of San Joaquin is hypotensive
  • 28.6 percent of the South Asian population of San Joaquin is Stage One hypertensive
  • 29.7 percent of the South Asian population of San Joaquin is Stage Two hypertensive
  • 38.3 percent of the South Asian population of San Joaquin has normal blood pressure but consumes red meat more than four times a month

Part of being an effective researcher means looking at issues from multidimensional perspectives. In my role as a researcher and leader, I was able to serve as a voice for my underserved community, San Joaquin County, to reduce inequalities in health care and heart disease. Through founding the Leadership Council for Health Disparities, serving as a researcher at UCSF and receiving the $10,000 Davis Projects for Peace grant, I believe that effective solutions are possible to impact the disparities I see on a daily basis.

The South Asian community in San Joaquin County was an underserved community with unaddressed problems of cardiovascular disease (CVD), hypertension and hypotension. To address this in a culturally sensitive way, I collaborated with San Joaquin mosques, gurdwaras and Sikh temples to promote community engagement, generate awareness and bridge the gap between health care providers and patients. This engagement across communities invited individuals from different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds to come together over a common issue — the need for accessible health care. To effect lasting change on critical universal issues such as health care, leaders should encourage this kind of cross-cultural communication.

To make sure we were addressing important problems in an effective way, we started by collaborating with mosques and gurdwaras in San Joaquin County to organize free mass screening programs in the community for CVD and hypertension. We screened age groups of 12 to 98 years old to check blood pressure. We also educated individuals on how to maintain a healthy lifestyle with manageable exercise and a better South Asian diet, since our research findings indicated that the South Asian population consumed red meat more than four times a month. Then, doctors involved with the South Asian community facilitated referrals and secondary clinical checkups. Finally, accessible medical care became available to a community that had gone so long without it.

When this culturally sensitive approach delivered positive results, we realized that a closer understanding of the South Asian community would be integral to enacting a lasting change in providing accessible health care. Through community engagement events at mosques, gurdwaras and at Mehran, a catering restaurant, we targeted the South Asian community. We worked to generate awareness regarding cardiovascular health, address health disparities and help reestablish patient-provider trust by focusing on cultivating cross-cultural understanding. At San Joaquin mosques, gurdwaras, and Sikh temples, I conducted hypertension and heart disease screenings with the summer program high school students I trained. As I realized that imams are pivotal pillars of the South Asian community, I also trained them to spread awareness about heart disease. Including high school students in the conversation about culturally sensitive approaches to health care helped to spread this message, further uplifting the South Asain community. Working throughout the community in this way should be standard when trying to include new perspectives into the health care system.

Community action allows you to enact change much broader than what you alone could achieve. I wanted to create a future of change that started with training high schoolers interested in health care, so that they would eventually come back to San Joaquin County and give back to the community. High school students participated in a summer program that I founded, the Medical and Health Aspiring program, to aid minority, first generation and low-income members of the San Joaquin community. Each student served as a health technology coach for two hypertensive patients from low-income communities and conducted community research. Huge portions of the South Asian community had either stage one or stage two hypertension. These staggering results point toward a larger issue of the medical neglect suffered from the South Asian community.

The students attended places of worship to spread awareness on reducing heart disease through seminars such as “How high blood pressure can lead to kidney damage.” We also expanded the legacy of the Leadership Council for Health Disparities to various high schools in San Joaquin county. This expansion enabled students to develop a deeper understanding about heart disease, hypertension and health disparities. Most importantly, it encouraged students to return to San Joaquin County with a passion for health care.

Though our community outreach proved effective, the South Asian community is not a monolith. To better serve smaller individual communities, we hosted events at mosques in San Joaquin County that are specific to each subgroup of South Asians. During Ramadan, we tabled at mosques and gurdwaras to provide screenings. We also hosted a carnival at the Eid festival with heart and oral health games and events. By building trust and empowering the South Asian community to familiarize themselves with medical concepts, community members can become advocates for their own care.

Through community outreach, it is possible to learn much more than you ever could in a classroom. Through the program and volunteering, the students learned the value of empathy, multiculturalism and service to disadvantaged communities. Additionally, the increased education and awareness activities provided a better understanding of cardiovascular health.

Because I believe so strongly in the power of community engagement to better our health care system, I’ve pushed myself to become a global leader in addition to a local one. I traveled to Pakistan and volunteered globally, creating a connection with my cultural diversity that has enabled me to tie in members of Tracy and San Joaquin. Tying local and global communities can scale up local lessons to make positive change on a greater scale. My experience working with the San Joaquin South Asian community has made me want to further pursue proper health care for people of all beliefs, backgrounds and cultures in other underserved communities.

I believe that anyone can devote themselves to help aid their local community.  Some people feel that they can solve the world’s medical problems, but I encourage UC Berkeley students to find what they are passionate about and find ways to incorporate their passion through service in their local communities. Making legislative visits and taking time to understand community concerns is invaluable to leading a community and making change.

We see many talented youths take advantage of the resources that top-tier universities, such as UC Berkeley, offer them. However, when they graduate, they move to bigger cities rather than enriching the communities they’re from or the communities most in need. This concentration of students in major metropolitan areas takes away services from communities that need leadership and innovative thinking the most. This can happen with every area of public service. Working with underserved communities provides an opportunity for students to create lasting positive change.

Maha Siddiqui is a UC Berkeley junior majoring in molecular and cell biology.