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UConn professors address refugee health care issues

By Domenica Ghanem
On February 3, 2013

UConn professors and students are working in a collaborative effort to address the problem of inadequate healthcare for Cambodian-American refugees.
Assistant Clinical Professor for the School of Pharmacy Thomas Buckley and the Assistant Professor of Social Work Megan Berthold form a team with combined expertise on specialized health care and healthcare access. Buckley and Berthold have joined forces at Khmer Health Advocates (KHA), the country's only Cambodian-American health care organization.
Pharmacy students evaluate each patient's unique health problems and share the information with professional pharmacists who can recommend changes in treatments. Simple innovations, like individualized care plans and better communication between doctors and patients, can have a huge impact in the lives of Cambodian-American trauma patients with both physical and mental health issues.
In addition to policy initiatives that focus on medication management, reimbursement for community health services, and a Cambodian-American medical home program, the professors have implemented curriculum initiatives.
"How do we change curriculums in the health professional school to help students understand the downstream consequences for a person exposed to trauma or torture," said Buckley.
Buckley and Berthold were surprised to learn how many people don't realize the impact that trauma has on the development of chronic diseases. There is widespread awareness on mental health issues such as PTSD and depression, but the long-term effects of physical illnesses, such as diabetes or strokes, are often left unrealized. By starting a conversation about the clear evidence of this phenomenon, and including both students and professionals in the discussion, KHA is working to improve the overall health care for Cambodian refugees.
KHA does a comprehensive assessment of patients that identifies risk factors, aspects that may worsen their conditions, and resiliency factors that promote their well-being and functionality. This information is relayed to both students and professional health providers as part of an effort to train them to offer the best possible trauma-informed care.
KHA focuses not only on assessing the health of patients, but also on addressing the language and cultural barriers between patients and doctors. The group stresses the need for better language access and understanding of the true needs of patients. Recent UConn funded research conducted by Berthold and KHA found that many Cambodian-Americans around the country are uninformed about their rights.
KHA seeks to draw attention to the huge health disparity issue and raise awareness for appropriate and fair funding to serve survivors with long-term health issues. However, the group does not stop with health care. They seek to influence other policy changes such as eliminating the practice of torture, and implementing immigration reform. These developments could help to bridge the gap for health care and other social disparities for Cambodians and other immigrants.
"We need to make sure that policies are actually implemented after they have been passed," Berthold said.
The collaboration between the large university and the small community-based advocacy group has created a unique arena to set forth constructive policy initiatives. The professors expressed the benefits of knowing where the experts are in each specific field and being able to include students across the spectrum. For instance, KHA has utilized UConn's Urban Service Track students who work with under-served communities or minority group with health disparities.
In addition to holding presentations for students, Buckley and Berthold also seek to enhance the expertise of practicing physicians and other health and mental health providers so that trauma survivors can be more appropriately treated.
"There is a synergistic relationship between the students and the community health workers. They teach the students about the culture and the students teach them about healthcare services," said Buckley.

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