Serving the underserved

Vital Signs » Fall 2014
Photo of Jessica Brown

First-year student Jessica Brown is committed to serving those who need it most

Jessica Brown credits her grandmother with sparking her interest in medicine. When she was nine, her grandmother suffered a stroke that left her paralyzed. By the time she was 14, her grandmother died from another stroke.

“No one in my family understood what was happening to my grandmother,” she said. “My burning desire to understand what happened to my grandmother spurred my interest in medicine.” Today, Brown is attending her first year of medical school at the Boonshoft School of Medicine. She was recently awarded a four-year scholarship from the National Health Service Corps (NHSC), a Federal government program administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), Bureau of Health Workforce.

The NHSC awards scholarships to medical students committed to primary care. In return, the medical students commit to provide primary health care serves in NHSC-approved sites in medically underserved urban, rural, and frontier communities across the United States, including Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC), rural health clinics, and Indian Health Service among others.

Brown, who is from Washington, D.C., plans to serve in an urban area. Her service will begin after she graduates and completes a primary care residency. “I definitely want to serve underserved communities like mine,” she said. “If I can help patients like my family understand more about their health, they will be able to focus on prevention and ultimately will live healthier lives.”

After her grandmother died, Brown began to notice the health of other friends and family members. Her mother’s unchecked arthritis worsened and eventually disabled her. “Her arthritis hindered what she could do,” Brown said. “She hasn’t been able to work in a long time. This has been tough on our family.”

Brown’s family did not have a primary care physician that they saw on a regular basis. She noticed that others in her neighborhood struggled with diabetes, hypertension, and cholesterol. Some were addicted to drugs and alcohol. Others got pregnant at a young age. “Almost all of these conditions are treatable or manageable with proper care and education,” Brown said.

She also noticed that the children in her neighborhood had health insurance, but their parents and grandparents did not. That observation led her to think about becoming involved in health policy.

“I want to focus on health policy for these communities,” she said. “It’s more than just wanting to help. It’s personal. I want to make a difference. I want health to be a priority in people’s lives. I want them to have a doctor.”

So Brown went to North Carolina State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences, and was a member of Student National Medical Association (SNMA), the oldest and largest student-run organization focused on the needs and concerns of medical students of color, and the Minority Association of Pre-Medical Students (MAPS), which represents the undergraduate and postbaccalaureate students of SNMA. That network encouraged her and provided her with opportunities to engage in medical community service and leadership.

She earned her master’s degree in forensic medicine at Drexel University. Her experience at Drexel included shadowing the chief medical examiner of Delaware County in Philadelphia. “This experience reinforced the importance of primary care and public health,” she said. “Many of the deaths investigated, including drug overdoses, heart attacks, chronic infections, and suicides, were preventable and/or treatable.”

She chose to attend the Boonshoft School of Medicine because of the emphasis on primary care, team-based learning, mentorship programs, and alumni association. “When I visited Boonshoft, it felt like I could grow here,” she said. “It felt more like a collaboration. It was just an awesome place.” Since arriving at Boonshoft in July, she has thrown herself into her studies. She just finished anatomy class. “It was nine weeks of craziness,” she said describing how she studied for her exam, creating diagrams and study sheets. “In anatomy, they say we learn about 10,000 new terms a week, and it’s true!”

She also has learned about patient interviewing and is grateful that the first-year students are learning about it first thing. “Some of these questions are very personal,” she said. “These are hard questions to ask. But I’m glad we’re getting this experience.”

While at medical school, Brown hopes to also earn a Master of Public Health through the school’s dual-degree M.D./M.P.H. program.

After she completes medical school, Brown plans to go into a primary care residency. Then, she will serve her four years as part of the National Health Service Corps, most likely in an underserved urban setting. She wants to work with an organization that does more than treat illnesses. “I want to be able to help the whole person and determine the other contributing factors of that person’s illness,” Brown said. “I know that I will serve in an underserved community like mine.”


Last edited on 09/22/2015.