Professor leads outreach to Latino communities

For the first time last weekend, Una Vida Sana, a VCU medical program, brought its free clinic to the Southwood community in the Southside of Richmond. Photo by Tito Henriquez.

Tito Henriquez
Contributing Writer

Mark Ryan, an assistant professor at VCU’s School of Medicine and a physician at VCU Health System, lead a medical program called “Una Vida Sana,” Spanish for “A Healthy Life,” to reach out to Latino populations in Richmond’s Southside.

For the first time last weekend, Ryan and graduate students from the medical, pharmacy and nursing schools brought their free medical clinic to a community called Southwood.

Ryan and the students worked in one of the city’s most densely populated Latino regions. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Latinos now make up nearly 6 percent of the city’s population. The population nearly doubled this past decade to 13,000 people

All of the students involved worked as volunteers in administering free cardio-metabolic screenings, which checked for hypertension, diabetes, blood pressure and cholesterol.

“We know that on average, the Latino community and Hispanic people have a higher risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes,” Ryan said.

The program officially began in fall 2009 and spring 2010, with the first clinics starting at independently managed nonprofit clinics such as the Sacred Heart Center in Richmond’s Southside.

Ryan is a VCU School of Medicine alumnus who has worked in rural Charlotte County, Va., where he observed the way immigrant communities develop after transient workers decide to settle down and build families.

“If you all of sudden move from a transient population to one that’s going to be here for the next 20 years, if you don’t address the risk in that community, you run the risk in 20 years of having a lot of people with really bad disease that no one has been watching,” Ryan said.

After returning to Richmond to work as a pediatrician at the Hayes E. Willis Center on the Southside, Ryan said he recognized the same pattern among his patient’s families.

Many parents started asking personal health-related questions during their children’s checkups. Ryan said he realized that there was an “unmet need” with preventive care and health-care screenings in the area.

Together with second-year VCU medical student Rishika Kaundal, now a Chesterfield Family Medicine resident, Una Vida Sana started to develop a program that could benefit other medical students and reached out to the Family Medicine and Population Health department at the university.

They also ended up catching the interests of the Schools of Pharmacy and Nursing along with Virginia’s largest free health care clinic, the Crossover Healthcare Ministry.

Crossover provided “Promotoras,” which are Latino volunteers who go through training programs to provide basic health education to members of their community.

“Promotoras are those who can say I am also part of your culture. Here is how you can make changes within the foods and the diet you’re familiar with,” Ryan said. “Their peer-to-peer teaching is amazingly helpful.”

Crossover also provided an opportunity for patients to get referred to them for follow-ups.

To get access to these communities, the program needed the help of individuals like Tanya Gonzalez, a manager at the Hispanic Liaison Office.

In 2012, the Hispanic Liaison Office became an official part of  the Richmond Department of Multicultural Affairs. The office received praise for its immigration integration programs.

In fall 2010 and 2012, VCU granted community engagement grants to Una Vida Sana. In 2012, the organization also received the “Currents of Change” award, which was a limited edition watercolor print, made by VCU alumnus W. Baxter Perkinson who is now vice president of the VCU Health System Authority.

Although funds from the grant have since run out, the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health now dedicates a portion of its annual budget to support the Una Vida Sana project. They also receive some financial support as well as medical equipment from the Student Family Medicine Association.

The programs work in a “modular” manner in which patients move from screening stations to review stations all operated by students. After they were done with the core services, they were informed on prevention methods by the “promotores” as well as given the chance to get tested for HIV, provided by the Minority Health Consortium.

“If I would have never come to this, I would have never known I had high blood pressure,” said Hipolito Argueto, an El Salvadorian immigrant who got screened. “I had been feeling bad here and there these past weeks but just thought it was because of stress.”

Ryan said everyone is welcome to be screened regardless of their ethnicity or income status. However, the goal of the project is to give free screenings and checkups to people who cannot afford doctor’s appointments or lack regular access to health care.

With the growth of Una Vida Sana, Ryan has dedicated half of his time to working in the clinic and the other half to teaching at VCU. Ryan teaches medical students and also teaches the “Doctor-Patient relationship” portion of a new “Patient, Physician and Society” course.

Last fall semester, second-year School of Medicine graduate student Joshua Pacious joined the program after approaching him.

Pacious now serves as the School of Medicine volunteer coordinator while also taking on the roll of overseer for all student volunteers from each department. He is also the Community Service chairperson for the SMFA and works in conjunction with the International/Inner City/Rural Preceptorship organization to reach out to students interested in volunteering with Una Vida Sana.

“Seeing that there are definitely needs out there that you are helping to meet … and making a positive impact in that way is meaningful,” Pacious said.

Una Vida Sana has two or three events a semester. They have also been involved with Richmond’s Imagine Festival and events hosting the Mexican and Honduran consulate.

“If you asked the students how often they would like to do this, you would get an answer to do this more frequently … but with only three core faculty … we can’t sustain that,” Ryan said.

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