Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many are seeking answers and advice while trying to social distance. To help, a group of Foster School of Medicine faculty and students are bringing their knowledge directly to the public, through a computer screen.
The El Paso Health Education and Awareness Team (EP-HEAT) consists of faculty from multiple Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso departments and students who have developed content for virtual health fairs for the local community.
Jessica Chacon, Ph.D., an assistant professor of immunology and microbiology, and her colleagues came up with the idea in May after the pandemic hit El Paso. After presenting several successful virtual health fairs, the team is preparing to expand with national and, hopefully one day, international presentations.
“As faculty and medical students, we wanted to help the community, but in a safe manner,” Dr. Chacon said. “Our health fairs are tailored toward non-scientists and non-medical audience members.”
To provide easy access for community members, the virtual health fairs are given on Saturdays and are accompanied by a web page with downloadable educational materials. The presentations are available in English and Spanish, which is consistent with the medical Spanish requirement for Foster School of Medicine students. The medical school was one of the first in the U.S. to integrate medical Spanish into its curriculum to better serve patients in the community.
Workshop topics include an overview of novel coronavirus, wellness and stress management, COVID-19 testing, symptoms and preventative measures, and lessons for making homemade masks and hand sanitizer. Each workshop is led by medical students. Faculty members work behind the scenes and act as moderators.
There are currently 25 student volunteers and 10 faculty members from various departments on the EP-HEAT team.
“It was an amazing opportunity to work with other students and faculty on this team. The faculty teach us in class and mentor us, but this was truly a collaborative project where we were working hand-in-hand,” said second-year medical student Sinthuja Devarajan. “As a student, it was a huge learning opportunity, and I’ve gained so much knowledge of the El Paso community, especially not being from here. It’s been a great experience.”
The first virtual health fair took place in July with a presentation to employees and parents at El Paso Independent School District and Mountain West Montessori School.
Since then, presentations have been given to more than 1,000 community members at Fabens ISD, Clint ISD, El Paso Community College, TTUHSC El Paso, a University of Texas at El Paso STEM focus group and high school students during a summer camp.
“Like many of the students who got involved in the program, I saw this as an opportunity to help my community,” said second-year medical student Aaron Murillo Ruiz. “I have a special connection to El Paso because this is where my family is from. One of the main reasons I wanted to come to the Foster School of Medicine was to give back to the community that my family lived in, and this was an opportunity to do just that.”
The presentations allowed the students a chance to connect with the El Paso community while helping with their professional development. Community service is a big part of the university experience: TTUHSC El Paso medical, nursing and biomedical sciences students provide over 19,000 service-hours annually.
“The whole platform has been a success because the students are the heart of our team,” Dr. Chacon said. “They’ve developed so much by presenting to their community. They’ve helped a lot of El Pasoans, including teachers, students, cafeteria workers and bus drivers. We have a wide range of audience members here in El Paso.”
Originally designed for the El Paso community, the virtual health fairs will be expanding its audience. On Oct. 17, the organizers will host a group of pre-med students and employees from the University of Pennsylvania. However, Dr. Chacon said they’ll still keep growing locally. Current plans include more health fairs for other El Paso school districts, including an Oct. 3 presentation for the El Paso community.
“One idea we have is to reach out to people in our sister city of Ciudad Juárez. Because our health fair is bilingual, that’s actually one of our strengths. Everything we have from the pamphlet – the presentations, even pre-recorded sessions – comes in English and Spanish,” Dr. Chacon said.
“There’s also an underserved population within El Paso we want to reach. Our virtual health fairs are available to anyone who has internet and computer access, but some students and parents may not have that readily available. What we’re going to do next is try to reach out to those who don’t have easy access to that technology.”