Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Program in Public Health

Multidisciplinary and Multicultural

Access to Health participants from Northwestern Law and Kellogg School of Management with schoolchildren in a batey near Guaymate, Dominican Republic, during a site visit in March 2013. 

“This is the best experience I’ve had at Northwestern. We contributed toward something that will make a difference to an entire community. We met with local stakeholders and a diverse community of people, some of whose voices would not otherwise be heard or reported... and their involvement will help drive the success of this project.” —Ewurabena Hutchful (JD ’14)

This fall a team from the Northwestern Access to Health Project will finalize a plan to improve healthcare for impover- ished residents of Guaymate in the Dominican Republic. Last year ATH launched an emergency obstetrical care project to alleviate infant and maternal mortality in Bonga, Ethiopia.

These two projects demonstrate ATH’s premise: that access to healthcare is a human right. Founded by Juliet Sorensen, clinical assistant professor of law in the Center for International Human Rights (CIHR) and Carolyn Baer, former deputy director of the Feinberg School of Medicine’s Center for Global Health, the program brings together stu- dents from the Law School, Kellogg School of Management, and Feinberg School of Medicine, and includes expertise from McCormick School of Engineering, to design health projects in developing countries.

Students taking Sorensen’s Health and Human Rights course work in interdisciplinary teams on a public health case study in the developing world, investigating issues such as policy, infrastructure, and access to training and equipment. Each class chooses a case study after consulting

with international and national agencies and organizations such as the Peace Corps, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the International Medical Corps, and the UN High Commission for Human Rights, about areas with the greatest potential for impact.

Students draw from research conducted by Northwestern’s renowned faculty and ATH partners to develop a healthcare solution that is both appropriate and sustainable for the community identified. During spring break, ATH conducts a site visit, meets with community members and partners, and establishes the foundation for the project. The plan is refined over the spring and summer, launched in the fall, and evalu- ated after six months and one year.

“What makes this program so rewarding is both the impact on communities in the developing world and on ATH stu- dents,” said Sorensen. “The interdisciplinary nature makes the program more effective and prepares students for the real world. They are sitting down at the table, working construc- tively with peers in the business and medical schools. This is vital training that will make them outstanding lawyers.” 

Samantha Woo (JD ’12) worked on the 2012 emergency obstetrical care project in Ethiopia. She was among four law students who traveled to Bonga to visit the district hospital and talk with health professionals, patients, and community lead- ers. Based on findings from the visit, an emergency-obstetrics training program was developed for healthcare providers. ATH is currently evaluating its effectiveness.

“In the U.S., maternal health is primarily a public health issue. But in the developing world, it is a multifaceted prob- lem that calls into question basic human rights like the right to healthcare,” said Woo. “Part of our work was to research Ethiopia’s constitution and legal system to understand obstacles to healthcare and find ways to address them.”

In 2013 in Guaymate, Dominican Republic, ATH students focused their studies on maternal health, HIV/AIDS, family planning, and Type II diabetes, which is on the rise in the Dominican Republic. Many Haitian immigrants and low- income Dominicans reside in “bateys” or rural communities of migrant sugar cane workers. They suffer extreme poverty and myriad health issues, including one of the highest HIV/ AIDS rates in Latin America. In March Sorensen, ATH colleague Dr. Shannon Galvin of the Center for Global Health, and six students conducted a site visit in Guaymate.

“We assessed the types of interventions that had and had not worked successfully in the past,” said Ewurabena Hutchful (JD ’14), who participated in the site visit. “Batey residents, healthcare workers, local NGOs, youth, and educators identified the need for health education programs and prioritized the need for strengthened outreach to the especially vulnerable Haitian migrant population.”

Some potential solutions included establishing a community garden to help address the nutri- tional problems exacerbating Type II diabetes; capitalizing on the popularity of a local baseball team to help disseminate nutritional informa- tion; and networking sex workers in separate communities so they may share HIV/AIDS prevention infor- mation and resources. In September, ATH faculty will meet with a community advisory board in Guaymate to finalize the project, which is expected to launch in October.

“Courses and projects like this enable us to effect real, tangible change in the world,” said dean Daniel B. Rodriguez, “and working together in an interdisciplinary setting is the only way to tackle complicated access to healthcare issues. What’s more, programs such ATH provide students with invaluable opportunities to build skills, work collaboratively, and improve the lives of people in the developing world. ATH is transforming the role of universities in the 21st century and the resources they bring not only to research and education but to community outreach on a global level.”

“This is the best experience I’ve had at Northwestern,” said Hutchful. “We contributed toward something that will make a difference to an entire community. We met with local stake- holders and a diverse community of people, some of whose voices would not otherwise be heard or reported... and their involvement will help drive the success of this project.”

This article was originally published in the Fall 2013 edition of Northwestern Law Reporter.