Reducing Health Care Disparities

Minority students join prestigious cancer research program

By ARVIN TEMKAR, USF NEWS Posted Mon, 08/14/2017 - 10:44

When her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, Glenda Kith MSBH ’17 saw firsthand how the health care system can fail patients. Kith’s mother, a low-income and uninsured immigrant from the Philippines, isn’t a native English speaker, and doctors rarely asked if she understood them or had questions. 

“She desperately needed help navigating through her care and understanding her cancer, and she didn’t get that type of support,” said Kith, a master in behavioral health student who grew up in housing projects in Alameda and studies the barriers many groups face when seeking care — called health disparities. 

Instead, doctors who treated her were sometimes late or rude. 

Kith’s mother pulled through. But minorities, immigrants, low-income families, and those who live in rural communities often find it harder to receive good health care due to discrimination, language barriers, ability to pay, proximity to care, and more.

Rethinking her mother’s experience

Watching her mother’s experience made Kith, who wanted to become a doctor, rethink her plan to attend medical school. Instead, she enrolled in the School of Nursing and Health Professions’ master’s program in behavioral health, where professors train students to examine a multitude of factors affecting a person’s health care. She learned how behaviors like a doctor’s body language and punctuality can make patients either more or less inclined to cooperate with treatment.

Understanding the bigger picture, Kith realized, would prepare her to help patients like her mother. Graduates of the behavioral health program have gone on to work as program directors, care coordinators for seniors and the disabled, and members of company health promotion teams.

As a student, Kith was selected for a prestigious UC San Francisco (UCSF) program called Minority Training Program in Cancer Control Research (MTPCCR), which aims to increase the number of minorities who earn doctoral degrees and go on to fight cancer disparities. The program, funded by the National Cancer Institute for the past two decades, provides training, support, and mentorship — and sets some up with paid internships at cancer research institutions. 

“The MTPCCR program provides exceptional mentoring as well as unparalleled opportunities for students to work with some of the greatest research scientists in the world,” said Assistant Professor Kathy Raffel, the director of USF’s behavioral health program and the person who suggested MTPCCR to Kith. “It’s one way to open doors for students who are best positioned to understand and address the needs of under-represented minorities.” 

“I got so much out of the program,” says Kith, who interned with MTPCCR at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital. “I know very few people who’ve gone through my experience and even made it out of college.”

Three MSBH students in the past two years — including Kith — have been accepted into the program. Evelin Trejo MSBH ’16, MPH ’17 participated in MTPCCR in 2016–17, interning at UC San Francisco, and Natalie Macias MSBH ’15 participated this summer.

Seeing her background as a strength

Kith also appreciates the guidance she’s received from faculty like Raffel and Assistant Professor Kelly L’Engle.

Some of her middle-school and high-school teachers treated her like she wouldn’t be successful because of her economic background, Kith says. And in college, at a large public university, she felt like she was just another person in the crowd. But at USF, faculty and students got to know her — and saw her background as a strength she could leverage to improve the world. 

“Going from that to the environment at USF, where professors say ‘you can do it’ — that’s really encouraging,” she says.