APAMSA: Advocating for Better Health

Medical Students Help Address Health Disparities in State's Hmong Population

MCW Asian Pacific American Medical Student Association chapter

Hmong Americans are an ethnic group that traces its descendants from the mountainous regions of China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. According to the 2010 US census, Wisconsin has the third-largest population of Hmong Americans in the country (behind California and Minnesota).

Despite its prevalence, and due to cultural and language barriers, this ethnic group has little representation in healthcare – either as providers or patients. Luckily, the Medical College of Wisconsin's chapter of the Asian Pacific American Medical Student Association (APAMSA) is working hard to ameliorate some of the health disparities that exist for Hmong Americans.

APAMSA is a national organization that aims to address issues important to Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) medical students. It also works to bring together the AAPI community and others interested in the health issues that affect AAPI Americans in order to build a strong, collective, public and political voice. APAMSA is interested in both directly promoting the health and well-being of the AAPI community as well as in helping all healthcare workers within these communities understand how to care for patients of AAPI Asian descent in a culturally sensitive manner.

Members of the MCW APAMSA chapter

Discussion at a MCW APAMSA chapter meeting

Given the size of the Hmong American population in Wisconsin, the MCW chapter of APAMSA has a particular focus on addressing health disparities across this particular ethnic group.

Jiyoon Park, a rising third-year medical student and co-president of MCW's APAMSA chapter for the 2016-2017 year, is of Korean descent. She understands, however, some of the hardships that come with being a member of an often marginalized group. "Typically, Asian Americans are stereotyped. They say we study and work hard, but don't give back to the community," notes Park. "In my experience, that is not at all accurate. In APAMSA, we want to do away with stereotypes and show that we do care about the community – especially the Hmong population in Wisconsin."

MCW's APAMSA chapter boasts more than 200 students, with many touchpoints in the community. One of the group’s largest projects is a student-run health clinic held each Saturday at the Phongsavan Hmong Market in Milwaukee. MCW medical students, typically in their first or second years of study, provide pro bono glucose, blood and eye screenings to the public.

MCW students volunteering at the student-run Phongsavan Hmong Market in Milwaukee

Checking blood pressure at the student-run Phongsavan Hmong Market in Milwaukee

Health screenings provided by MCW medical students at the Phongsavan Hmong Market in Milwaukee

Glucose screening at the student-run health clinic at the Phongsavan Hmong Market in Milwaukee

"I love the way I can use the skills and knowledge I am learning in school to provide a service to the community," says James Wu, a rising second-year medical student at MCW-Milwaukee. "APAMSA allows us the opportunity to help Hmong Americans, which is a population that faces many barriers to healthcare."

APAMSA's efforts also extend to helping to educate young Hmong Americans about opportunities in the field of medicine. Each year, the organization hosts a workshop at MCW for students at the Hmong Peace Academy, a charter school located in Milwaukee. This year, more than 80 students visited MCW for a workshop where they received hands-on training in dissection techniques and learned about career paths in the medical field.

AAPI Cultural Awareness Fair at MCW

MCW medical student discussing Hmong health disparities at MCW workshop

Interactive learning at the MCW AAPI Cultural Awareness Fair

MCW APAMSA student workshop

MCW APAMSA chapter activities

APAMSA members also participate in the community through the airwaves. Every other month, several APAMSA members broadcast a radio show on JOY Radio (1340AM), providing listeners with pertinent health information specific to Hmong Americans. "The radio station caters to the Hmong population and talks directly about health issues that are more prevalent within the Hmong population, such as diabetes and Hepatitis B," Park shares. "The real value of the radio show is that rather than waiting for the patients to come to us, we communicate to them wherever they are located…and in their own language."

There is more progress to be made, according to Park. The organization, however, is on the right track. "I'm most proud of how far we have gotten. We all have worked tirelessly to bring APAMSA to where it is today," reflects Park.

Park and the APAMSA's diligence was validated this past year, receiving the "Chapter of the Year" award out of 87 active national chapters. This marked the third year that the MCW chapter has received this honor.

Another reason for this prestigious award was the chapter's 300+ hours of community service in 2016 and its efforts within the Milwaukee's Hmong community. B. Li, MD, professor of pediatrics (gastroenterology) and national founder of APAMSA; Clarence Chou, MD '77; and Andy Hsu, MD, MPH, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation, are the chapter's advisors.

Park believes APAMSA has come a long way in changing perceptions of Asian Americans. "I think we have really showcased who we are as an organization and have altered many people's stereotypes about our heritage. We are proud to be carrying out our mission to bring together the AAPI community."

MCW APAMSA chapter members

– Alex Krouse

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