Bridging the gap between health care disparities

This summer after my first year of dental school, I had the opportunity to intern at Bridging the Gaps, a community-based summer internship where health care students work with underserved communities in Philadelphia and gain insight into factors that affect health. For anyone interested in gaining experience with social determinants of health or working in public health, I recommend this program or participating in an interdisciplinary health care program like this one.

Here are three lessons I learned participating in this program.

1. Context matters.

This was an important theme discussed throughout the program. When assessing the well-being and attitude of the people we’re serving, it is important to take into account the context of their backgrounds. I worked with the organization Educators for Education to create a six-week online, court-mandated program for Black adolescent boys in the Philadelphia justice system who were at risk or previously involved in crime. The program focused on career development, health knowledge and life skills.

Initially, I anticipated more excitement among the students for learning and more open dialogue during the workshops. However, as I learned more about the challenges the boys were coping with in and out of this program such as technological issues, lack of educational resources and family deaths, I began to understand how challenging it was for them to focus on learning. Context allowed my team and I to empathize and tailor the workshops to their needs. When we evaluated the effectiveness of our program, we considered these external factors that contributed to the attitudes and learning of our students.

2. Interdisciplinary approach to health care is valuable.

One of the most transformative aspects of my internship was the opportunity to work with students from different schools in Philadelphia, representing different health care programs such as nursing, social work and policy, occupational therapy, medicine and veterinary medicine. We discussed patient case studies and the perspective that each profession would bring to patient care.

Although I came into these discussions supporting an interdisciplinary approach to patient care, participating in these discussions brought to life the significance of the perspectives I overlooked as a dental student, simply because I had never learned about it formally. The profession of dentistry can often feel distant from other health care professions, but it doesn’t have to be. I challenge you to meet students from other programs and learn from one another. Working together, we can advocate for our patients effectively.

3. Practice radical empathy, not just empathy.

This internship was the first time I have ever heard the term “radical empathy.” Isabel Wilkerson, author of “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” puts it best: “Radical empathy is not about you and what you think you would do in a situation you have never been in … It is the kindred connection from a place of deep knowing that opens your spirit to the pain of another as they perceive it.”

The part of the quote that was most profound to me was the distinction between putting yourself in someone else’s shoes to understand a situation through your lens versus putting yourself in someone else’s shoes to understand a situation through their lens. In tackling health care disparities, it is important to be an ally for those who cannot speak up for themselves. To be a better ally, we need to take initiative to educate ourselves, instead of placing the burden upon vulnerable populations to inform us.

~Hilary Wong, Pennsylvania ’24

Hilary Wong

Hilary Wong is a second year dental student at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine. She currently serves as the National ASDA Council on Communications Associate and District 3 Secretary. She enjoys hiking, photography, and trying out new restaurants.

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