During the summer of 2013, I had an opportunity to volunteer as a public health counselor at the Carrboro Community Health Center. Through the guidance of Student Health Action Coalition (SHAC) an organization comprised of UNC health professional students who utilize the health center on Wednesday nights to deliver free clinical services, I facilitated brief counseling sessions with patients. The health professional students I volunteered alongside came from fields including—but not limited to social work, nursing, medicine, and pharmacy.
Ideally, the system of health professional students volunteering through SHAC operates in a collaborative, harmonious fashion. Once medical and pharmacy students retrieve information from patients and execute a course of action designed for treatment, they relay what they have deduced to the public health and social work volunteers, who then administer counseling sessions and refer patients to suggested social services.
My experience at the Carrboro Community Health Center didn’t exactly embody the model and principles presented during orientation, nor the volunteer information page of the SHAC website. On many occasions, I, as a volunteer public health counselor, never got the chance to see some of the patients. The simple rationales provided by the medical students in particular were, “He or she [the patient] just left, I’m sorry, I totally forgot to tell them to wait for the public health counselor.” Or, “Oh, I just told the patient they could leave, I didn’t think they would benefit from seeing the public health counselor—I’ve already told them everything they needed to know about their health.” I guess my role as “the rookie” at the health clinic prompted me to refrain from vocalizing responses to these comments. The “hierarchical vibe” I sensed from the comments and demeanors of some of the medical students was uncomfortable and problematic on many levels.
During “down times” at the clinic, volunteers read novels for leisure, sent and read text messages, or simply conducted conversations with one another. Small talk often transformed into gossip sessions about the patients, primarily among the medical and pharmacy students. I recall one conversation I overheard at the clinic when a female third-year medical student was expressing her repugnance at the sight of a patient she was attending to. Based on the content of the conversation, a female patient pulled out her breast, as the medical student was going through the patient’s history, to breast feed her newborn baby. To this day the question the medical student addressed to her colleagues still rings through my ears: “This woman pulled out her boobs in front of me! Is that normal?!?” I recall another account when I overheard a male fourth-year student talking to other volunteer medical students about a patient who came into the clinic “complaining about a foot fungus that supposedly could have been taken care of by visiting a local drug store.” I presume that from the perspective of the medical student, the patient wasted his time in addition to the medical student’s time.
The more I reflect on these incidents, the more I regret not utilizing the feminist resources I have acquired in many of my Women’s & Gender Studies courses to speak out on the wrongdoings of some of the medical and pharmacy students at the health clinic. Erasing hierarchical associations, particularly those attached to “differences” (i.e., differences in race, gender, and sexual identity), has been and continues to be a critical element in promoting feminist ideologies within social interactions and relations. Considered a patriarchal tool within the feminist sphere, hierarchy perpetuates social inequality and devalues the rights of marginalized groups. Applying this concept to healthcare, it remains absolutely imperative to dismantle the hierarchical implications placed on medical students, pharmacy students, social workers, and public health counselors. This is necessary in promoting an egalitarian healthcare environment. After all, each role that health professionals play in the healthcare setting is essential to delivering the best service and treatment to patients.
Constructing and ultimately establishing a sense of identity is a central task highlighted in feminism. Learning about yourself through the service of others epitomizes a way in which individuals can come to a thorough understanding of their existence. Gossiping about patients, especially in a negative manner, is not reflective of a path towards genuinely creating or discovering oneself as a human being. No matter what situations healthcare providers encounter that may appear “out of the ordinary,” or in reference to the female medical student who encountered a patient breastfeeding her baby, “abnormal,” it’s important to exhibit respect for all patients, whether in their presence or not. It is responses and reactions in those situations that actually have a significant impact in shaping one’s identity.
Feminism is not an ideology that is exclusively embedded in women’s groups, the LGBTQ community, or reproductive rights organizations. Feminism is applicable in nearly every arena. As a matter of fact, it is desperately needed everywhere, especially in the context of healthcare in the United States. As I wrap up my journey here at Carolina and enter “the real world,” I vow to use what I have learned in my Women’s & Gender Studies courses to transform my inner thoughts into verbal language that moves us toward social equality and the preservation of human dignity in healthcare and other assorted settings.
The artwork for this post is complements of Ash Conrad. Ash is …