In 2007, Andrew Chen had just started medical school at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) when Hurricane Felix struck the northern Atlantic coast of Nicaragua. The category 5 storm killed hundreds of people and destroyed health facilities, contaminated much of the water supply and caused sanitation and other public health emergencies. The hurricane also exposed huge weaknesses in the country’s health infrastructure. Even before the hurricane, Nicaragua didn’t have a single paved road connecting its Pacific and Atlantic coasts.
Inspired to help, Chen formed the Collaborative Sahsa Health Initiative (CSHI), a partnership between students and faculty at UNC-CH and the University of Nicaragua-Léon. The goal is to improve the health of the Sahsa region, an underserved, isolated area comprising 50 villages hit hard by Felix. “I realized that as a clinician I can provide individual care for patients, but as a public health practitioner I can have an impact on a much larger scale,” he says.
In addition to treating villagers in the clinic, they began visiting households directly to learn firsthand about health needs. Chen wants to analyze and map the data to identify disease and health patterns, and then target health interventions for diarrheal disease and reproductive health.
He is earning an MPH at the Bloomberg School to learn how to analyze this type of data more effectively. “My current research interests revolve around underlying mechanisms that lead to health disparities, especially in the area of international health, where epidemiological training is especially important,” he says. “I believe studying public health in addition to medicine will allow me to be a much more effective advocate for patients.”
Orthopaedic Trauma Surgeon, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill