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What I did this summer: Stanford medical student helps India nonprofit create community-health maps

This summer, Stanford medical students contributed to projects in communities around the globe as part of the Medical Scholars Research Program. In this special back-to-school Q&A series, five students share their experiences developing preventive medicine strategies, gaining hands-on clinical experience and conducting field research.

After watching the movie trailer for The Revolutionary Optimists, Stanford medical student  Shahed Alam was drawn to India-based nonprofit Prayasam's unique model of addressing community health issues. The documentary, which was directed and produced by filmmakers in the Program in Bioethics and Film at Stanford, chronicles the story of a lawyer-turned-social entrepreneur working to empower children living in Kolkata's poorest neighborhood to become leaders in improving health and sanitation.

During a conversation with Prayasam's founder, Alam learned that the organization was interested in advancing the children’s work on preventive health issues, which range from vaccination drives to raising awareness about proper hand-washing techniques, and their project to create map of their communities to use in their advocacy efforts. He saw the potential for using mobile technology to enhance the community map project and felt the children could benefit from the process of design thinking, a method that could help them mine their insights and identify pertinent issues. So he signed on to spend his summer vacation working with children ranging in ages from 7 - 17  to implement a mobile-survey platform developed by researchers at the Earth Institute of Columbia University.

Alam chronicled his research efforts on his blog. Below, he also discusses working with the children in Kolkata on the community-health project and his most memorable experiences while working with Prayasam.

As part of a brainstorming session, the children expressed a desire to understand the health-needs of the community by conducting a survey. Why was it important to develop such a survey,  and how will it be used to improve the health of the community?

The children had been involved in various campaigns centered on health issues from advocating to local political leaders about garbage collection to raising awareness of polio vaccinations through street theatre. Although they were able to spot many of these obvious issues, they realized a need to better understand the health landscape of their communities. Furthermore, they understood the importance of having more compelling data for their advocacy. Thus, data from the surveys would serve dual purposes: to gather evidence that could enhance their advocacy and guide the messages delivered in their plays, puppetry and art.

How did you and the children go about designing the health survey?

The children built the survey from the ground up. First, we mined their experience and interactions in the community to draw insights about the needs and wants of its members. We hypothesized what would be the most valuable content areas to focus on. Next, we carefully crafted questions that began to uncover these issues. This was a highly iterative process and one that involved a number of children. I first sat with a core team of youth leaders to develop the survey and then introduced the surveys to the larger community groups. During the entire process, the youth were vocal in determining the content, questions and administration of the survey.

What are the next steps for the health survey?

After we completed forming the household health survey, the children began two “simple” surveys that would introduce them to the mobile platform. One survey identified the available food resources in their community. The other documented the physical hazards that children faced. Above all, these surveys served to involve and introduce the younger members of the community to this activity. They recently completed these surveys and have begun the administration of the household health survey. In preparation, we held several mock sessions so that the children were ready to conduct the surveys. Once the data has been collected, I will help them analyze and visualize it on the health maps.

What was your most memorable experience working with Prayasam this summer?

It is impossible to choose one. But a recent session does stick out in my mind because it brought together many concepts from this summer. This particular session was about nutrition. We began the discussion by analyzing the data and health maps of the food resource survey the children had completed. Here, they focused on evaluating the food availability and cleanliness of each vendor. We then moved on to a discussion about personal nutrition, using the “Indian Food Pyramid” as a guide. This conversation slowly evolved into talking about nutrients and cell energetics. Though it was totally unplanned, I then opened up my laptop to show the children some fascinating examples of microscopy that illustrated the various functions of a cell. The public health nerd in me got a kick out of how the discussion went from community issues of food resources to individual choices in nutrition and finally, to the exact mechanisms and needs of nutrients in our body’s various cells.

Previously: A story of how children from Calcutta’s poorest neighborhood became leaders in improving health and Stanford filmmakers to debut documentary at TEDxChange
Photo by Shahed Alam

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