New Medical and Dental Students Immerse Themselves in El Paso's Culture While Honing Clinical Spanish Skills

TTUHSC El Paso Immersion

Two hundred first-year Foster School of Medicine and Hunt School of Dental Medicine students experienced a "poverty simulation" as part of an educational workshop at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso.

The simulation involved several role-playing scenarios, including visiting a pawn shop to sell personal property for grocery money and going to a payday loan provider to survive until the next paycheck. The experience helped students better understand what the 18.8% of El Pasoans living in poverty face nearly every day. As one might expect, poverty is a major obstacle to routine health and dental care.

The simulation is an innovative addition this year to the Society, Community, and the Individual (SCI) course TTUHSC El Paso medical and dental students take in July informally known as "immersion." Students at the schools begin their academic journey with an immersion in the unique lifestyle, culture and language of the El Paso-Juárez Borderplex community. Nearly 40% of Hunt School of Dental Medicine students and 20% of Foster School of Medicine students hail from El Paso or West Texas counties with cultures similar to the Borderplex.

The immersion courses - SCI and Conversational/Clinical Spanish - are the first medical and dental students complete before studying medicine and dentistry in August during "Year One" at TTUHSC El Paso.

Immersion has been part of curriculum since the medical school opened in 2009. The Hunt School of Dental Medicine adopted immersion into its curriculum, and its inaugural class completed the courses in summer 2021.

Salma Elwazeer, B.D.S., M.D.S., M.P.H., assistant professor of public health at the Hunt School of Dental Medicine and director of the dental component of SCI, pushed to integrate poverty simulation into immersion.

"We're helping students understand the realities of poverty," Dr. Elwazeer said. "They experience the hardships of low-income families and their day-to-day challenges while interacting with community agencies. Understanding those challenges promotes poverty awareness, transforms students' perspectives and their unconscious biases toward disadvantaged populations, and inspires their roles as future health care providers to be the local change in the health care field."

Immersion professors hope students will better understand barriers many underserved patients face in accessing health care, including lack of transportation that causes them to miss appointments, low incomes that prevent early treatment, and language barriers that can be obstacles to communication and self-advocacy. 

During immersion, students also hit the road to assess the social, health and infrastructure needs of the community.

They visited area neighborhoods, unincorporated communities (colonias), and regional towns and cities, including Canutillo, Clint, Fabens, Horizon City, Montana Vista, San Elizario, Socorro, and Sunland Park and Chaparral, New Mexico, to speak to residents and community leaders about their community's health care needs.

First-year medical student Jessica Hoffman from Dallas, Texas, was assigned to visit Chaparral, New Mexico, where she interviewed community health care workers and a health clinic employee.

"It's the best way to understand how to be a compassionate and culturally aware health care provider," Hoffman said. "Through this experience, I interacted with a medically underserved local community. It's important to understand their needs so as health care providers, we can expand access and quality care for these residents."

Organizers said working on Spanish language skills is the other beneficial aspect of immersion.

Research shows that patients with limited English proficiency greatly benefit from bilingual health care providers and are more likely to understand diagnosis and treatment and adhere to medication and routine care.

TTUHSC El Paso is the only health sciences center on the U.S.- Mexico border and serves 108 counties in West Texas that have been historically underserved. It is the only health sciences center on the U.S.-Mexico border designated as a Title V Hispanic-Serving Institution, preparing the next generation of health care heroes, 48% of whom identify as Hispanic and are often first-generation college students.

Media Contact: 

Marty Otero at maotero@ttuhsc.edu or 915-215-6017

Source: Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso

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Categories: Colleges and Universities, Graduate Schools, Under Graduate Schools

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TTUHSC El Paso is the only health sciences center on the U.S.-Mexico border and serves 108 counties in West Texas that have been historically underserved. It is the only health sciences center along the U.S.-Mexico border designated as a Title V Hispanic-Serving Institution, preparing the next generation of health care leaders, 48% of whom identify as Hispanic and are often first-generation college students.

TTUHSC ELP
222 Rick Francis St. (Office of Institutional Advancement)
El Paso, TX 79905
United States