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Third-year IUSM-NW student heads to Harvard

Jennifer Addo to expand her health care focus at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Friday May 22, 2015

In speaking with Jennifer Addo, it’s clear that she’s driven to make a difference in people’s lives. The third-year IU School of Medicine-Northwest (IUSM-NW) student has a strong interest in using her medical education to address health disparities among underserved populations, which she derived from her ethnic background and has cultivated throughout her medical education.

Addo, whose parents are originally from Ghana, first developed a passion for the issue of health disparities while volunteering in hospitals in the West African nation during her sophomore year of college at the University of Michigan. Witnessing the devastating impact an underfunded and failing health care system has on the health of a population piqued her interest in learning more about the field of public health.   

“Seeing how destitute the health care system is in Ghana is saddening,” said Addo. “It is not necessarily because individuals in the health care system don’t know medicine or they don’t know what they’re doing, but is just kind of the economic status of the country that would lead us into the whole history behind colonialism, and we’re still seeing the effects today.”

The impact of that experience together with a summer enrichment experience her junior year with Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan, led Addo to consider pursuing a master’s degree in public health one day to address health disparities as a physician. This interest, which was put on the back burner for a time, intensified as she began medical studies at IUSM-NW, where she’s had greater exposure to the impact of health disparities that are inherent in underserved urban communities. This time, Addo said, her interest in pursuing a master’s in public health degree came back strong.

“The interest first started with me going to Ghana, working in the hospitals there, and then continued after my junior year when I worked with Blue Cross/Blue Shield. And it kind of got my wheels turning,” said Addo. “And, then, just kind of seeing the health disparities that people either of socioeconomic statuses that aren’t very high or racial/ethnic groups that really aren’t supported, made me believe that I can play a role in maybe bringing about change in that regard.”

As a result of her passion and growing interest, Addo took a leap of faith and applied only to Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She was admitted in March, and will begin a nine-month, full-time Master of Public Health (MPH) degree program in health policy in September 2015. According to Addo, she intends to make the most out of her experience there by networking within her areas of interest – Medicare, Medicaid and women’s health issues.   

“At Harvard I hope to do a lot of networking,” Addo said. “I’ve talked to some students there and they said you think the hardest part is getting into Harvard, but it’s not, it’s once you get there because there are so many resources, there are so many things to do, there are so many people to talk to.  If you don’t go in with a focus in mind, it could be very easy to get lost.”

Once armed with both a medical degree and an M.P.H., Addo intends to use her knowledge of public health to inform her ability as a physician to holistically address the health of communities.

“I definitely think that by being a physician, yes, you do help individuals – it’s you, the patient and, potentially, their family,” Addo said. “But, in public health, it’s more community-based or, depending on how large-scale you want to go, it could be globally-based. To have that juxtaposition of individual health care and then also community/global or however big I want that scale to be, I think those two can go together nicely because, yes, I can help individuals, but I can also see how I can better the health of all of these individual people together.”

According to Patrick Bankston, Ph.D., Associate Dean and Director of IUSM-NW, Addo’s interest in health care disparities makes her a perfect fit for Harvard’s public health program.

“One of the reasons Jennifer chose IUSM-NW was because of our urban location and chance to learn medicine in underserved communities,” Bankston said. “Her interest in health care disparities, developed in part by our curriculum, led her to apply to the Harvard public health program. It’s a perfect fit and we are very proud that she was accepted.”

After completion of her M.P.H. at Harvard next year, Addo will return to IUSM-NW to finish her medical degree.

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