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Doctor to Patient: A Cultural Understanding

By Crystal Yednak

As a premed undergraduate at Northwestern, Smitha Sarma gravitated to the global health minor to round out the core science classes she was taking.

“I wanted to be a doctor and thought this program would give me a good understanding of the whole picture of what health means to a patient and all the different things that are influencing it,” said Sarma, who is now a first-year medical student at the Feinberg School of Medicine.

She studied abroad through the Public Health and Development in South Africa program, visiting clinics and hospitals and learning about development work. “You hear about all these theories,” she said. “Finally, when you’re studying abroad, you can see them applied on the ground.” One such example was when the class toured a town where a significant portion of the residents were addicted to methamphetamine. Students visited a rehab center and studied the factors behind such a high addiction rate for such a small town.

They also met the real people engaged in battle against this public health problem, such as the principal fighting to hold on to children who were hitting the age where they could become sidetracked by drugs. Her story stuck with Sarma. The woman used whatever tools were in her arsenal and showed the Northwestern group how even small actions such as enforcing simple rules about uniforms could lead to improvements.

“You get an idea of how, if you want to change a community, you have to be really invested, there in person. Little interventions can really make a big difference,” Sarma said.

After her study abroad in South Africa, Sarma traveled to Lausanne, Switzerland, using money from a Radulovacki Global Health Scholars Research Fellowship. She participated in research on gene therapies for Parkinson’s disease.

Recently, she put her global health experiences to work when she and a team of students won the first Northwestern Global Health Case Competition in February. (See blog story and photo:

Posed with a scenario in which they were given $10 million to attack a childhood pneumonia outbreak in Uganda, the team developed an awareness campaign that made use of Ugandan celebrities in music and soccer and sought to educate parents about the warning signs of pneumonia.  

“In all of our global health classes,” observed Sarma, “they really teach you how to approach things in a socially responsible manner: This idea that you are an outsider when you’re going into these countries, and you need to understand your role.”

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