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There was more to do on Alumni Weekend 2011 than catch up with old friends and classmates, march in the parade and grab lunch under the tents, and try to square the campus you remember with the (mostly much nicer) surroundings before your eyes. Penn Alumni and the University’s schools and centers offered up dozens of educational tours, talks, and seminars on subjects ranging from food safety to the University’s architectural treasures to minimally invasive surgery for pets. Here are reports from just a few.

Heading for a Healthier World

In the early 2000s, as the country turned its attention to the global stage, Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine Dean Arthur Rubenstein realized that his school needed to do the same.

It started with the students. They’d formed their own global health interest group at Penn, and prospective students were exhibiting a similar preoccupation with international issues. “In the interview process, many of them said, ‘We’d like to come, Penn’s a great place, but we would like to be trained and have the experience and opportunity of working in countries all over the world because it’s a passion of ours—we’re really committed to it,’” Rubenstein said. “We became aware that if we did not have a serious global health program, students would choose not to come to our schools. It was that clear … If we were going to attract the best students, we really had to build such a program.”

And build it they did. Penn’s Global Health Program has been going strong since 2004, and was frequently cited in the Alumni Weekend panel on “Global Health in a Connected World.” Inside the recently renovated Claire M. Fagin Hall, Rubenstein joined two other panelists—Afaf Meleis, the Margaret Bond Simon Dean of Penn Nursing, and Neal Nathanson, associate dean for Global Health Programs—as they explained Penn’s program and grappled with one of the biggest questions surrounding global health today: Why should we be so concerned with health issues in other countries when we have plenty of our own to deal with here?

In her introduction to the event, President Amy Gutmann offered an explanation: “Making life-saving healthcare available to hundreds of millions of people who desperately need it may be the single most pressing problem of our inter-connected world,” she said. When it comes to global health, among other issues, “the world is nowhere near declaring ‘mission accomplished.’”

Meleis said dealing with international health problems is “a moral commitment to the world” and can be “a very humbling experience” for the faculty and students who travel overseas to help. “They are inspired when they go somewhere else,” she added. “Being in other countries and really learning about what’s going on there is definitely a win-win for us: We have better-educated healthcare professionals who are more sensitive to vulnerable populations.”

Global health systems are grappling with a host of serious problems right now—HIV/AIDS, violence, poverty, lack of access to health services and education, maternal and infant death—and in nearly all cases, they’re more severely affecting women, Meleis said. “I believe the most important issue that any of us ought to see is the gender divide in the world and the disparities it creates,” she added. “By focusing on women’s health, we can develop [a] sense of social mission, we can develop [a] sense of social accountability, and we can prepare our students to really understand what’s going on in the world.”

While globalization and urbanization can often mean new opportunities and positive changes in developing countries, Meleis said they are not without a serious cost to women’s health. “Women are uniquely burdened by the effects of globalization and they remain disadvantaged in many areas of life, which puts them at risk,” she said. “I worry very much that when we focus only on diseases, without looking at who is more marginalized and who is more compromised in the process, we lose sight of the need to focus on women’s health.”

Rubenstein expressed concern over another major international medical issue—the so-called “brain drain” that occurs when healthcare professionals train in an underdeveloped country but come to the US or Canada or Australia to work. “These countries are putting an enormous amount of money and effort into training [their citizens], and then they’re attracted here because of higher pay, better conditions, and because healthcare professionals are highly regarded in this country,” he said. “This is a very, very serious problem.”

The solution, Rubenstein said, may lie in the Medical Education Partnership Initiative. Introduced in 2010, the government-funded program is investing in healthcare training, an infrastructure reward system, and continuing education opportunities designed to encourage healthcare professionals to stay in underdeveloped countries. “In my view,” Rubenstein added, “this is probably the single most exciting initiative in global health.”

The idea behind it is a familiar one at Penn. For the last decade, the University has been working with the University of Botswana and the country’s government to train healthcare personnel in HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment and to develop strong postgraduate training programs [“Prognosis Botswana,” Mar|Apr 2007]. Through the Botswana-UPenn Partnership, several hundred Penn students, residents, and researchers travel to Botswana each year for educational and research opportunities.

It’s just one component of Penn’s burgeoning Global Health Program. According to Nathanson, the program has been expanding since its launch in 2004, and now offers a global health track—including international rotations—to interested School of Medicine residents. About 80 to 100 students complete the voluntary international rotations each year, about half in African countries.

The immersion opportunities don’t end abroad, though. About a hundred students each year participate in local service and immersion experiences, such as Puentes de Salud’s Philadelphia health clinic for Latinos. Nathanson said Penn Medicine also encourages those in the Global Health Program to pursue a master’s degree in public health so they can better understand the challenges underserved populations face both here and abroad.

Broadly speaking, global health is “something we really are invested in,” Rubenstein added. “Our students have driven it to all of our advantage, and when you read about this in alumni magazines, I hope that you’ll be both interested and proud.”—Molly Petrilla C’06


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FEATURE: Alumni Weekend Checklist
Photography by Addison Geary

©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette




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