Public Health Students Offer Health Screenings to Uninsured

Last Updated on October 26, 2015 at 10:11 am

Originally published October 23, 2015

By Laura L. Acosta

UTEP News Service

Free health exams provided by student researchers in the Master of Public Health (MPH) and Health Promotion programs at The University of Texas at El Paso have made it possible for more than 1,000 uninsured people in the community to keep better track of their health.

Since October 2014, student researchers have screened 1,100 medically uninsured participants in El Paso for diabetes, obesity, hypertension and other chronic diseases as part of a study between UTEP’s Department of Public Health and the City of El Paso.

Master of Public Health student Juan Antonio Aguilera, M.D., (sitting) reviews Sam Ochoa’s electrocardiogram during a free community health screening on Oct. 17.   Student researchers in UTEP’s Master of Public Health and Health Promotion programs will offer free health exams to El Paso residents who are medically uninsured as part of a study with the City of El Paso. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News Service

Master of Public Health student Juan Antonio Aguilera, M.D., (sitting) reviews Sam Ochoa’s electrocardiogram during a free community health screening on Oct. 17. Student researchers in UTEP’s Master of Public Health and Health Promotion programs will offer free health exams to El Paso residents who are medically uninsured as part of a study with the City of El Paso. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News Service

The exam includes a lipid profile to check for high cholesterol, a blood glucose test to look at blood sugar levels, a spirometry test, which measures lung function, and an electrocardiogram (ECG) to monitor the heart. Participants also have their blood pressure screened and height, weight and body mass index assessed.

“We’re changing the focus of research because we are not just collecting data,” said MPH student Juan Antonio Aguilera, M.D. “We’re providing a service at the same time. We give the participants the results so they know their glucose and cholesterol levels and we try to spend a few minutes with them and talk about the results and give them recommendations based on the findings.”

The study began last year with a $300,000 grant from the City of El Paso to gather information about the health status of low-income residents without health insurance.

Former UTEP professors Rodrigo X. Armijos, M.D., Sc.D., and M. Margaret (Meg) Weigel originally led the study, which is now under the direction of João Batista Ferreira-Pinto, Ph.D., associate research professor and director for research and special projects in the College of Health Sciences.

Participants answered a comprehensive survey, which included sociodemographic information such as household income, and questions related to their overall health.

Student researchers screened 900 participants at public housing complexes, community health fairs and the Mexican Consulate in El Paso.

The data was shared with the El Paso Department of Public Health to develop prevention strategies and interventions.

“I’ve seen a lot of challenges in the community with the uninsured,” said Eric Martinez, a 2015 graduate of UTEP’s MPH program. “They can’t get a lot of health services and some of them don’t know where to go. We’ve seen people with high levels of cholesterol and they need help with how to manage that. Hopefully this information will help the city develop programs for them.”

The city also offers vouchers for free mammograms, colonoscopies, pap smears and flu shots to participants who qualify.

Aguilera, who earned a medical degree from the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez, reviews the results.

Participants with abnormal test results are referred to low-cost providers in the community.

Angel Ochoa took advantage of the free health exam offered at Santa Teresita Church in the Buena Vista neighborhood of West El Paso on Oct. 17. Ochoa, 52, grew up in the house next to the 82-year-old church.

Unlike the health screenings he’s had at health fairs in the mall, this was the first time Ochoa had an ECG done outside of a hospital or doctor’s office.

Aguilera interpreted Ochoa’s ECG results in real time as Ochoa lay on a cot beside him. As he observed the heart’s electrical pulses on the monitor, the doctor did not see any abnormalities or signs of arrhythmia.

“This is way more comprehensive,” Ochoa said about the health screening. “I’ve had my glucose and blood pressure checked at other health fairs, but they didn’t have anything like this.”

The project has been so successful that it has received funding to provide an additional 900 screenings for a second year.

In September 2015, the program expanded to include UTEP students. More than 100 students participated in free health screenings, which took place each Monday in the Health Sciences and Nursing Building through October.

One of those students was Myriam Santillan, a multidisciplinary studies major, who recently participated in the screening to have her blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure checked.

For Santillan, the daughter of two doctors whose family has a history of diabetes, maintaining her health is a priority.

“It’s really important to know what’s happening in your body,” said Santillan, who planned to get a similar health screening at the UTEP Student Health Center. “The ECG (showed) that there was something different in the rhythm (of my heart). That’s good because now I can do further examinations, like go to the doctor, and prevent other diseases or whatever I might have. I think it’s very good.”

UTEP students have access to the Student Health Center, which offers low-cost office visits, medications, lab tests and other health care services.

All of the student-researchers who participate in the program learn how to perform the different aspects of the health exam, from taking a person’s blood pressure to collecting a blood sample from a finger stick in a capillary tube for the lipid profile.

“When I first started volunteering, I thought I would never have an opportunity to do something like this as an undergrad,” recalled Emma Mejia, a health promotion senior who has been involved with the project for more than a year. “I didn’t have much background in health, but when you start to volunteer you get a little more experience. This program is great because it gives you the opportunity to learn a lot. You start building from taking height and weight measurements to doing blood pressure and lipid profiles.”

Aguilera said the health promotion students can also offer recommendations based on the knowledge they’ve developed in their classes.

“For example, if the participant has high cholesterol, they can recommend that (the participant) consider diminishing the amount of cooking oils they use or eat a little less flour-based foods,” Aguilera said. “It’s a win-win situation because the (health promotion students) help us out and we can provide them with feedback about their clinical work.”

Free health exams will be offered from 8-10 a.m. Monday, Oct. 26, in the lobby of the Health Sciences and Nursing Building. Participants must be uninsured, live in El Paso and refrain from eating or drinking for nine to 12 hours before the exam.

Health exams are also being planned at venues across the city throughout the rest of 2015 and 2016.

For more information, email utephealthexams@gmail.com.

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