Graduate program aims to improve health outcomes with focus on community needs
Mohammad Hooshmand Zaferanieh M’21 had always wanted to go into health care, but while getting his bachelor’s degree in biology in 2016, he took a hard look at the system he was about to devote his working life to.
“I was a little disheartened by the way this system was set up and the number of people who were still falling through the cracks,” he said. He started work in the medical devices industry, but “I was denying something that I truly felt compelled to do.”
To provide the best care for his future patients, Zaferanieh realized he would need to learn more.
“A large conglomerate of factors goes into someone’s health,” he said. “It starts off in the social setting, in where they live, which neighborhood they’re in, what type of food they’re eating, how much exposure they have to chronic stress or environmental pollutants. Someone’s well-being starts miles away from the health care setting.”
Jessica Accardi M’19 came to a similar conclusion while working in the emergency department of Greenville Memorial Hospital after earning her Bachelor of Science degree in 2016.
“Interacting with people from many different backgrounds, I began to gain insight into the various barriers that impacted individuals’ access to medical care,” she said. “This left me wanting to gain different skills to help mitigate these barriers.”
To continue their education, Zaferanieh and Accardi both found a distinctive graduate program: Furman’s Master of Science in Community Engaged Medicine (MSCEM).
Launched in 2018 with a partnership between Furman and Prisma Health, the 12-month MSCEM program puts students into the field to learn about health disparities firsthand, leading to an advanced understanding of science and population health and all of the social and biological factors that can affect it, said Rachael Bowers, director of the MSCEM program and director of education for The Institute for the Advancement of Community Health.
By combining biomedical science, social science and practical experience, Furman’s MSCEM program offers an advantage over programs that focus on only one aspect of health care, said Bowers.
“We’re not a master’s in biomedical science, we’re not a master’s in public health, and we’re not a service year,” said Bowers. “We are uniquely giving students some of each of those experiences in a way that helps them understand the challenges in our health care system, but also reflectively understand what inspires them to be part of that system.”
The MSCEM program, which has graduated 66 students in four cohorts since 2018, will begin hosting two cohorts each year in 2023. The fifth cohort, which will graduate in May 2023, will overlap with the sixth cohort, which will launch in January 2023 and graduate that December. Meanwhile, the seventh cohort will begin in summer 2023.
In the classroom and in the community
The curriculum of the MSCEM program is designed to parallel the collaborative philosophy of the community health concept, emphasizing interdisciplinary partnerships to improve outcomes, said Bowers. In classes, students explore subjects such as implicit bias, community engagement and health policy, as well as clinical anatomy and physiology, genetics, epidemiology and metabolic biochemistry.
Theories from the classroom gel as students begin to see how the concepts play out in real-world community settings.
During a nine-month applied experiential learning course, each degree candidate works with Greenville-area organizations serving under-resourced populations. Fieldwork includes 12 or more hours per week directly observing and engaging with people to gain tangible skills in areas not often served by traditional internship or shadowing opportunities.
Partner organizations include the Greenville Free Medical Clinic, FoodShare, Project Hope, the Upstate Medical Legal Partnership, the Prisma Health Center for Family Medicine and the Bradshaw Institute for Community Child Health and Advocacy.
“Fieldwork for the MSCEM students is incredibly important,” said Dr. Kerry Sease, a physician with Prisma Health and medical director of the Bradshaw Institute. “As medicine shifts to focus on better understanding the impacts of the social drivers of health, these experiences allow the students to see firsthand how important community-based interventions can be.”
Accardi, who served at the Greenville Free Medical Clinic as an interpreter, medical assistant and patient intake specialist, found her fieldwork gave her a better understanding of the resources available to the community – as well as some new personal connections.
“It gave me a true appreciation for the clinic staff, for the numerous roles they fulfill daily,” she said. “I also enjoyed getting to know the patients on a deeper level and hearing their stories beyond their medical history.”
Forging connections within several spheres
Throughout three terms, seminars feature conversations, case studies and expert lectures, and students work on individual thesis projects to consolidate their experiences. This is when the three curriculum pillars – biomedical courses, population/public health courses and the applied experiential course – really come together, said Bowers.
“It allows students to think of how what they’re learning in anatomy, physiology, genetics and biochemistry is enhanced and complemented – not replaced – by what they’re learning in epidemiology and policy,” Bowers said. “And they’re seeing it in action in their fieldwork sites, so they can understand all things at the same time.”
The interdisciplinary program is suited to applicants from all backgrounds, Bowers said. “We have students who were science majors, and we have students who have more of a public health and social sciences background,” she said. “We’re not just putting the material in front of them and hoping they can make those connections. We’re leaning on their applied experience and the seminar course to intertwine them.”
Students also receive career counseling and test preparation for professional examinations such as the MCAT, DAT or GRE.
An emerging – and essential – field
More than half of the program’s graduates entered (or plan to enter) medical school or other training for a career as a health care practitioner. Many of them, like Zaferanieh and Accardi, were accepted to the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville.
As he begins his second year in medical school, Zaferanieh said the in-depth analyses of the social determinants of health has given him a unique perspective among his classmates.
“Throughout the first year when we would go through cases and study pathology, I’m thinking, ‘What things in this patient’s life could they modify to reduce the severity of this state? How could this be prevented from the get-go?’” he said. “And in the discussions we’re having about holistically approaching a patient’s care, I was ahead of a lot of my peers who had previously not been exposed to these social determinants at an academic level.”
Although Furman’s program remains distinctive, community engaged medicine is an emerging – and increasingly necessary – field, said Sease.
“Students who understand the value of community health as it relates to a population’s health will better respond to the country’s health care crisis,” said Sease. “The benefits of traditional health care paired with the tenets of public health is a win-win for everyone involved.”