Four members of the Class of 2023 at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine (VTCSOM) had more than a full plate this past year after taking on an honors project in addition to their busy medical studies. Luma Abunimer, Macy Marcucci, Satya Vedula, and Sarah Yosief made up the inaugural cohort of the school’s Aequitas Health Honor Society Fellows.

The national society was formed in 2021 to recognize a group of fellows dedicated to the cause of health equity and to working toward eliminating health disparities in all forms. The national society was a recipient of the prestigious McNulty Catalyst Fund, which is awarded to young organizations that are driving worldwide change.

“We established the chapter at VTCSOM to advocate for health equity and make sure that is something that we are fostering in our students,” said Azziza Bankole, professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine and chief diversity officer for the school.

The four students were selected to be fellows at the end of their third year of medical school. During their fourth year, they determined a research question, designed a project, obtained necessary approvals, carried out the project, and evaluated their results.

Fellows were selected on evidence that they are dedicated to health equity. Residents and faculty are also eligible to apply for the program.

“These students never ceased to impress me,” Bankole said. “They were extremely innovative and passionate about health equity. My job as president of the Virginia Tech Carilion Aequitas Society was to guide them and help keep them focused on what realistically can be done in a year.”

This year, the fellows carried out a study evaluating the effectiveness of interpreters in a busy inpatient unit at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital.

Using survey research, the Aequitas fellows wanted to determine possible improvement of satisfaction, confidence, and understanding among patients with limited English proficiency through more effective use of interpreter services, both live and virtual, in the hospital’s mother-baby unit. Surveys were administered by caregivers, including OB-GYN residents Alana Castro-Gilliard and Shian McLeish.

“We find that often our patients with limited English proficiency are not fully accommodated for in the clinical environment,” Vedula said. “All four of us had been in situations where the effectiveness of the translators varied dramatically.” Most institutions do not have formal practices in place for how to use interpreters, he said.

In terms of preliminary observations, there was a noticeable variation in the survey responses possibly as a result of misunderstanding, insufficient communication, or the way the survey itself was administered. The group has suggested the continuance of collecting surveys and analyzing data as well as coordinating practices with Carilion Clinic’s training modules which the 2024 class of Aequitas Health Honor Society fellows is hoping to complete.

“It’s critical that we all learn how to work with non-English speaking patients and that it becomes regulated and normalized,” Marcucci said.

Being Aequitas fellows has increased the group members’ passion about how to create and drive systems that help people beyond the clinical environment. “Health equity work is something I’m trying to learn more about. I view it as a skill set to develop,” Marcucci said.

“The students did a lot of hard work on this project on top of everything else they were doing,” Bankole said. “Health equity really is a passion for them, and this is something I see them continuing during residency and beyond. I’m so glad we were able to foster that in them while they were here.”

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