March 14, 2013
Riya V. Anandwala

SLU Physicians for Human Rights Chapter Tackles Local Issues, Wins National Award

ST. LOUIS - After graduating from Saint Louis University in 2008, Aaron Meyer worked as a Jesuit volunteer at a homeless shelter in Tacoma, Wash., for a year. Returning to SLU for medical school, Meyer found a way to connect what he learned through his service experience in his formal education. 

The SLU Chapter of Physicians for Human Rights with Fred Rottnek, M.D.,  
associate professor of family and community medicine (center).

He collaborated with Fred Rottnek, M.D., associate professor of family medicine at the university to re-start the Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) Chapter at SLU that had been inactive for several years. Part of the national organization that addresses international human rights issues, the chapter at SLU deals with health disparities from its own backyard.

The chapter's leadership aims to tackle issues beyond the classroom. Its six board members correspond regularly via email and get together once a month to plan events that they, as future physicians, feel will fully equip them to take care of the patient. From lunch hour talks to community service, advocacy events and partnering with other interest groups on campus, they try to bring a variety of perspectives on local problems to the table. 

"The PHR chapter on our campus sheds light on important human rights issues," said Rottnek, who serves as the faculty advisor for the group. "This kind of education will make our students better physicians." 

This year, they received the Physicians for Human Rights National Student Program Best Chapter Award, an honor they share with Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College.

"I think it's not only a humbling award, but also call to action to continue expanding and growing as a chapter," Meyer said.

Rottnek believes it's the consistency of messaging and focus on local human rights issues that got them this recognition.

"They do a great job of making students aware of local issues," said Rottnek. "They have been able to come up with speakers, community service events by diligently planning and identifying the right community organizations."

So far, the chapter has invited local speakers who have addressed issues such as racial tension, LGBT health, domestic and sexual violence, and how to deal with health care of refugees in the city.

"Our goal was to apply the principals of the national organization to the issues here in St. Louis," said Meyer who will graduate from medical school this May. "In the past few years, we have shed light on problems that were not emphasized in medical school."

Rottnek has also given a talk or two at the chapter events, including a lecture that explored health care in the corrections setting.

"Such talks help open the eyes of our medical students to community issues and problems related to the environment, and how those can impact the medical issues of an individual," said Rottnek.

Some of the other speakers included Ken Haller, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at SLU, Ed Weisbart, M.D., from St. Louis Physicians for National Health Program and Suzanne LeLaurin, senior vice president for individuals and families at International Institute of Saint Louis.

Geoff Motz, a second-year medical student and current president of the chapter says talks on domestic and sexual violence have been among the more powerful presentations so far.

"I didn't know a lot about these issues and the statistics hit me hard," said Motz. "This came with the realization that we, as future physicians, must maintain a level of suspicion for domestic violence or sexual violence along with any disease or syndrome."

For the domestic violence awareness month in October last year, the chapter organized week-long talks and invited several speakers on campus. One of the speakers, who survived domestic abuse shared her personal story of being in an abusive relationship and how she was able to break the cycle of abuse.

Students also learned about the scope of problems faced by local residents who have AIDS from Stephen Houldsworth from Saint Louis Effort for AIDS. In the talk, Houldsworth pointed out that St. Louis has a sizable population that is infected with HIV. This number includes a large group of people who are unaware of the fact that they are infected, a smaller group of people who are infected but are not seeking treatment, an even smaller group who are poorly treated or are not taking medicines, and lastly the smallest group who are treated properly.

"This is certainly a multifactorial problem, but we as physicians can always strive to do better," Motz said. "I think this is especially possible through closing the gap between poorly treated or patients who are not taking their medicines and the well-treated patients with great long term prospects."

"These talks have enlightened us about common human rights issues that will enable us to take better care of our patients once we start practicing medicine," he added.
Having won the ‘Emerging Leaders' Award by the national organization last year, the best chapter award signifies that SLU is one of the most active chapters in conducting advocacy and education in support of health and human rights throughout the nation.

"This recognition is a huge motivation to continue full speed ahead, plan events that are important to medical students and that will make them well-rounded," Motz said.

Established in 1836, Saint Louis University School of Medicine has the distinction of awarding the first medical degree west of the Mississippi River. The school educates physicians and biomedical scientists, conducts medical research, and provides health care on a local, national and international level. Research at the school seeks new cures and treatments in five key areas: cancer, infectious disease, liver disease, aging and brain disease and heart/lung disease.

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