At the start of the pandemic, as researchers and health professionals scrambled to learn more about the new virus, non-scientists struggled to find clear and concise information. For many seniors in Boston’s Chinatown community, this difficulty was compounded by the language barrier.
But the student volunteers in the Tufts Chinatown Wellness Initiative (TCWI) were ready to lend a hand. Already familiar to seniors with the health seminars they regularly offered in Mandarin, Cantonese and English, students quickly became a trusted source of knowledge about COVID as they moved their presentations online and focused on the issue. most urgent health care of the day.
“I never would have thought that part of our mission would be to try to dispel the misinformation, or to try to explain some of these unprecedented clinical trials that were underway,” said Joshua Man, M23, one of the founders of the group. “But that was obviously very important, especially since it’s really hard to find the information in their native language here.”
For Man, a medical and doctoral student at Tufts University School of Medicine and Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, the pandemic has only reinforced his belief that helping people get health advice that concerns them can alleviate health disparities, including those faced by Asian Americans. Asian Americans have the highest rates of liver and stomach cancer of any race or ethnic group in the United States and are twice as likely to die from these cancers as non-Hispanic whites. Some of these disparities may be linked to a lack of screening for cancers or other diseases. For example, Asian Americans have a higher prevalence of diabetes with lower body mass indices compared to other ethnic groups. A 2015 study The National Institutes of Health found that although diabetes is common in this group, affecting one in five Asian Americans, it is estimated that half of these cases go undiagnosed and untreated.
Man started TCWI in 2015 with Thomas Huang, MG17, then an MS in Biological Sciences Program student. The man was inspired by one of his first classes in medical school, where he learned that people who can find and understand basic health information are more likely to recognize and report symptoms, seek health services and successfully manage prescription drugs.
After attending the Asian Health Symposium hosted by the Tufts Clinical and Translational Science Institute, which brought together community leaders, researchers, students and neighborhood residents to present research conducted in partnership with the Asian community in Boston and to think about future collaborations, Man wanted to take action.
“Poor health literacy is the root cause of many health disparities in the South End and Chinatown neighborhoods,” Man explains. “The disparities in education, compounded by language and cultural barriers that could alienate the immigrant population in the neighborhood, prevent people from truly understanding and taking ownership of their medical care. “
Man and Huang decided to start a seminar series for seniors living in social housing in Chinatown. They worked with the Asian Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization that runs affordable housing in the area, to get the word out.
The first seminar brought together about twenty participants in a multipurpose room to discuss diabetes and diet. Although Man speaks a bit of Mandarin and Taishane, a dialect common in Chinatown that somewhat resembles Cantonese, he presented in English with an interpreter to ensure attendees understood and could ask questions in the language. they were most comfortable with. His slides contained information in English and written Chinese.
A grant from the Tisch College of Civic Life helped students expand their efforts in the second year; they proposed the initiative as a community service learning opportunity for medical students and reached out to other students on health science campuses.
“Food and nutrition is at the heart of the Asian perspective on health, and we happen to have a fantastic nutrition school right across the street,” Man says of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. Students from Tufts University School of Dentistry also volunteered their time. “Since 2016, student volunteers from the three schools have been working together, putting together presentations every month or two on topics that particularly affect this population. “
Students work with community partners to determine which topics they should focus on. When the pandemic hit, the topic became obvious. At their first COVID-19 conference, the students tried to cover all the emerging information the researchers had discovered about the virus, how it was spreading, and what precautions to take. They pre-recorded their presentation and then answered questions about Zoom for almost an hour with the help of an interpreter.
“At that time there was a lot of uncertainty, there was a lot of misinformation, there was a lot of confusion,” says Jocelyn Vuong, M24, who co-leads the group with Harleen Saini, M24. “And so we knew we were providing the information seniors needed to help them in their daily lives.”
Vuong grew up learning Cantonese at home. When COVID-19 hit, she saw TCWI as a way to both connect with her culture and raise awareness about the virus and other health issues relevant to the Chinatown community.
“As medical students, we believe that everyone deserves equal access to health care, and that starts with providing people with the information they need about their health,” Vuong said. “Being part of TCWI really connected us with the Chinatown community at times when there was a lack of connection.”
In February, when seniors in Massachusetts became eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, the Greater Boston Chinese Golden Age Center requested a seminar on vaccine development and what seniors should expect when they get vaccinated.
“We were really grateful to be able to play this role because we already had this relationship with this community and their trust,” Man said.
More recently, after several members of the community died from heart disease, the students gave a presentation on heart health.
“They are really flexible on the topics – we go back and forth on what would be a good topic,” says Natalie Ng, virtual coordinator of the senior center activities at Golden Age. “This is one of the most valuable aspects of this partnership.
As more people receive COVID-19 vaccines and the pandemic appears to be slowing in the Boston area, the group will focus on other important health issues. They may, however, continue to present some of the seminars on Zoom, as the platform allows them to reach a larger audience and take more time to answer questions. The group is also discussing ways to reach a younger audience to talk about preventative health measures. But their central mission of ensuring that health information is accessible and accessible to Boston’s Asian community remains the same.
“What we do – teach and take the time to do these sessions – really seems to have an impact,” Saini says. “We go to the question-and-answer sessions and see so many seniors and so many members of the community introduce themselves and ask questions and take notes. It’s like everything we learn in school, what our goals are to become doctors, we are actually seeing it unfolding right now. And I think that’s a beautiful thing in itself.