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Student Group Provides Cultural Awareness at School of Medicine

Cultural Awareness Committee

Between the clinical rotations and other rigors of medical school, Shalini Bumb carves out a little time for dancing. For the past few years, Bumb has joined in a performance of Indian folk dances for the Wake Forest School of Medicine’s Oasis Talent Show. “It’s kind of our extracurricular fun activity on the side,” she says.

But there’s more than fun behind the bright costumes, lively music and rhythmic movements of the group’s performances. They’re part of Bumb’s efforts to broaden cultural awareness at the School of Medicine - which she hopes, in the long run, will make her and her classmates better doctors.

A fourth-year student, Bumb is one of four members of the Cultural Awareness Committee, which was created in spring 2008 to educate students in the School of Medicine about cultural differences and their impact on medical care. The group is composed of one representative from each class and is supervised by Dr. Brenda Latham-Sadler, Associate Professor, Family & Community Medicine, and Director of Minority Affairs.

“It’s very important that we tie cultural awareness into medicine,” said Bumb. “We’re beginning training to treat diseases of all kinds, but we treat people of all kinds, too.”

During a visit to India as part of the Himalayan Health Exchange program, Bumb worked with impoverished people in a remote area and found that many had suffered corneal damage – a common occurrence in the “very windy, sandy” region where they lived. Knowing that the patients had limited access to medicines, Bumb’s group taught them how to purify water that could used as a rinse in place of eyedrops.

“You have to understand that their lifestyles are different from ours,” she said. “Cultural awareness is a lot more subtle than having to know pathology and the interactions of certain drugs.”

It’s an awareness that the group is working to pass on to other medical students. The CAC provides a variety of educational and social events that promote recognition of other cultures. The committee coordinates presentations by third- and fourth-year medical students to first- and second-year students, presenting cultural issues the upperclassmen have encountered in medical units. The group also works in conjunction with the Office of Multicultural Affairs to promote cultural events within the community.

On Dec. 6, the CAC presented a “Melting Pot” event that featured an international lunch and presentations by faculty members who are from or have worked in other countries.

"I think cultural competency should be a priority, as we will encounter people from a variety of backgrounds on a daily basis,” said Pavani Thotakura, a third-year student. “It is important for us to be knowledgeable about different backgrounds so that we can better understand and relate to our patients, which will inevitably lead to better patient care.”

During his community practice experience, Tao Cui, a first-year student, encountered an Islamic woman who brought her child in for immunizations. The woman was concerned about whether the vaccines contained pork gelatin, which is considered impure in Islamic law.

“It helped make me aware of this issue for the future,” Cui said. “I think it’s important for med students to recognize that different views exist and learn how to negotiate with patients so that they can benefit from western medicine without compromising their cultural values.”

Jason Bonomo, a second-year student, grew up experiencing different cultures, with most family vacations spent in other countries. “My mother, who moved to the U.S. from Lebanon when she was 28, always wanted my siblings and I to understand that there is an incredible amount of variety in the world that needs to be appreciated and understood,” he said.

“I hope the CAC will be able to increase the exposure medical students have to cultural and socioeconomic diversity so that when we are practicing physicians we are able to communicate effectively, empathically and respectfully with future patients,” he said. 

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