Connecting medical students with the world

An innovative program offered by the U of S College of Medicine is connecting future physicians with marginalized communities and is helping medical students learn more about the social determinants of health – both at home and internationally.

By Colleen MacPherson
Making the Links, delivered since 2005 through the college's Division of Social Accountability, is a certificate program that combines academic courses with service learning in underserved communities. The program has been a hit with the medical students who participate in it each year.

"I couldn't imagine doing medicine without Making the Links," said fourth-year student Kristen Siemens. "It's on the forefront of global health training and definitely the College of Medicine is very supportive."

The 10 undergraduate medical students involved with the program annually have the opportunity to work in Saskatoon's inner city, at the Student Wellness Initiative Towards Community Health (SWITCH) clinic, in the remote communities of Ile-a-la-Crosse and Dillon in northern Saskatchewan, and in the countries of Mozambique and Zimbabwe in southern Africa.

Those students who successfully complete the two-year program receive a Certificate in Global Health, which is believed to be the first and only undergraduate certificate of its kind in Canada.

Dr. Ryan Meili, the head of the Division of Social Accountability, said Making the Links helps connect altruistic students with communities in need. Meili said the program requires students to tap into their sense of adventure and step out of their comfort zones to experience another reality.

"Really, are they open-minded enough to proverbially walk in someone else's shoes?"

Meili is hopeful the new certificate available through the program will further legitimize global and rural health as core areas of training for physicians. He also hopes the program will encourage students to continue to work in underserved communities once they complete medical school.

Meili said Making the Links helps medical students understand "their context within health care, that it's not just about doctors and hospitals. They develop relationships with people in the communities, and they get to know them as friends. They invariably describe it as a life-changing experience … (that) often alters the direction of their careers."

Siemens, who participated from 2008–2010, describes her time in Mozambique as incredible but also values the exposure she had to rural medicine during her time in the northern Saskatchewan communities. She plans to focus on family medicine upon graduation and remains connected to northern Saskatchewan.

Dr. Kieran Conway, a medical resident in Prince Albert, said his life changed as a result of Making the Links. He appreciated the hands-on approach and interdisciplinary nature of the program.

"It was probably one of the better parts of medical school. The friendships that we formed and the additional experiences that we got out of it – I think for all of us who did it, that really made an impact," he said. "We spent six weeks living in northern Saskatchewan. Many of us still visit those communities whenever we can and have relationships there. The other highlight would be the trip to Mozambique for six weeks there."

Conway encourages all undergraduate medical students to explore it as an option. "I think it's a wonderful program, and I think if people are even remotely interested they should apply," he said.

For more information about Making the Links and the new Certificate in Global Health, visit the
Division of Social Accountability website.

Shannon Boklaschuk is a communications co-ordinator in the Student and Enrolment Services Division at the U of S.