As headlines surrounding the healthcare reform debate dominate the media, one Lehigh undergraduate course is helping students interpret the arguments in the context of the sociological dimensions of health, illness and healing.
The course, Medicine and Society, is taught each fall by Judith Lasker, professor and chair of the department of anthropology and sociology. Inside the classroom, students learn about the social, cultural, ethical, political and economic factors affecting health and healthcare today. Outside the classroom, they conduct fieldwork projects that bring to light the realities of healthcare in America.
“The fieldwork component of the course is designed to give students exposure to the world of public health, see health-related work in the community and, if possible, contribute to it,” says Lasker, who added fieldwork as a requirement for the four-credit course in 2001.
Last fall, students had the choice of doing field projects for either St. Luke’s Hospital or New Bethany Ministries – two organizations rooted in Bethlehem’s South Side.
Allison Prosswimmer ‘10, a history major, worked at New Bethany Ministries, a nonprofit that provides care and services to poor, homeless, hungry and mentally ill people in the Lehigh Valley. New Bethany wanted to measure the satisfaction of its clients and the effectiveness of its programs. Prosswimmer and other students helped conduct surveys and collect data on the people using the services, including their healthcare coverage. The data was analyzed by the students and presented to a representative of New Bethany Ministries. It resulted in a report that the agency will use to apply for future funding.
An eye-opening experience
Prosswimmer said the experience was eye-opening. She was able to draw parallels between her history courses and the experience she gained on the ground in South Bethlehem. One recent history course focused on the Great Depression and discussed the relief administered to many middle-class families who found themselves in need for the first time.
“Interestingly, we have found ourselves in a similar situation today,” says Prosswimmer. “As I was talking with some of the beneficiaries at New Bethany Ministries, I found out that the downturn in the economy had put them in tough positions, perhaps for the first time. It is intriguing to look at the parallels between how historical and current events affected, and now affect, the needs of the population.”
Prosswimmer, a Spanish minor, was also tapped as a translator by New Bethany clients who completed the survey.
“Once I began talking to individuals at New Bethany Ministries, I understood the strength of the connection between poverty and poor health,” said Prosswimmer, who also studied healthcare in Turkey through the Martindale Student Associates Program. “I was shocked at the number of people who told me they had no health insurance, and I began to think critically about the national healthcare debate. I also realized that language barriers and cultural differences can have a large effect on access to, and outcomes of, healthcare.”
Other students provided assistance to St. Luke’s Hospital’s department of community health, which receives a grant each year to provide flu shots in poor and minority communities in Bethlehem and Easton. Students from the Medicine and Society course have contributed to this campaign each year since 2003, assisting with clinics and conducting surveys in poor neighborhoods to determine how many residents received flu shots and what concerns prevent those needing shots from getting them.
Last fall, students joined hospital representatives to canvas neighborhoods and engage residents in the survey, and ultimately analyzed the data. The findings help the hospital understand the needs of the community and also publicize the flu clinic to those in need. The results have been incorporated each year into the hospital’s proposal for obtaining subsequent funding. Students also had the opportunity to help at the clinic to see how the program worked.
Lasker says the fieldwork serves as a good example of service learning by linking course readings and lectures to a community-based experience while offering assistance to community agencies. In addition to the reports to New Bethany Ministries and St. Luke’s Community Health, the students are required to complete their fieldwork projects by writing a paper that applies material learned in the classroom to their experiences.
“As a student, it is very easy to design a community service project, for example, and think you are serving a need in your community,” says Prosswimmer. “Certainly, such projects are helpful but the fieldwork helped me realize that it is extremely important to assess and address the real needs of the community in which we live rather than the needs you think may exist.”