LAREDO (JUNE 5, 2008) — Doctors no longer make house calls, so many environmental factors that would clue in physicians as to why their patients are sick aren’t considered, much less discussed.
That’s why Roger Perales, M.P.H., R.S., assistant director of the South Texas Environmental Education and Research program (STEER), has been taking aspiring medical students, as well as nursing students, physician assistant students and public health professionals, into the field learn about such factors as impure drinking water, lack of refrigeration and insect issues that often exist in underserved areas, such as the rural colonias along the Texas-Mexico border near Laredo.
Perales, a faculty associate at the Laredo Campus Extension of The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, recently had the opportunity to share the objectives and successes of the STEER Program with a national audience during a yearlong fellowship with the Environmental Public Health Leadership Institute (EPHLI), sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Perales was one of 40 environmental health leaders selected for the class of 2007-2008 and was one of six invited to make a formal presentation about their projects at the graduation ceremony held in Atlanta, Ga., in February.
Now, Perales is one of six fellows from last year’s class selected to mentor fellows in the 2008-2009 fellowship class currently under way.
“Being a fellow was a good experience. The fellows in the program are mostly environmental health directors for cities, regions or states. I got to learn about the health issues in other areas of the country, develop formal leadership skills and get a better understanding of the systems-thinking approach to problem solving. That was a real eye opener,” Perales said. “Some of those things I had never thought about – guidelines, formulas and procedures. These skills will help me as we face the challenges involved in program sustainability as well as the many environmental public health challenges that we face in South Texas.”
“As a mentor, I am now learning even more about environmental issues in other places and I’m continuing to become a better leader by guiding the three fellows assigned to me for their professional development,” Perales said. “Another benefit is that I can network with more environmental health leaders from around the country to enhance their understanding of the connection between public health and medicine and bring back to STEER the best ideas and practices that they have to offer. I’m also getting to know more people at the CDC, which could help in our efforts to explore grant opportunities to fund our program.”
Developed in 2004 by the CDC and the National Public Health Leadership Development Network, the EPLHI’s mission is to strengthen the country’s environmental public health system by enhancing the leadership capabilities of public health specialists from various agencies and organizations in diverse settings, according to the EPHLI Web site.
The EPHLI’s goals are to improve the leadership and skills of environmental public health personnel, to enhance the functions and services offered through public health systems and ultimately, to improve environmental health across the country.
Perales believes he was selected to present his project, “Making the Connection Outside the Clinic: Adding Public Health and Environmental Public Health Education to Medical School Curriculum,” because of its relevance and success. “We have been offering STEER since 1996,” he said.
During that time, more than 400 graduate-level health professions students from across the United States have attended the month-long rotation. In addition, several thousand individuals have participated in STEER either part-time or through various trainings or community-based research projects. The course is a collaboration with more than 70 federal, state and local partners, including The University of Texas School of Public Health, which is now offering a joint four-year M.D.-M.P.H. program with the UT Health Science Center — one of only six programs of its kind in the country, as of 2007.
“We are basically trying to show our students in STEER as many different types of environmental factors as we can, from landfill and wastewater issues to cultural influences, such as the use of herbal medicines,” Perales said. “These factors can play a bigger part in a person’s — or a community’s — health than you might think.”
The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio is the leading research institution in South Texas and one of the major health sciences universities in the world. With an operating budget of $576 million, the Health Science Center is the chief catalyst for the $15.3 billion biosciences and health care sector in San Antonio’s economy. The Health Science Center has had an estimated $35 billion impact on the region since inception and has expanded to six campuses in San Antonio, Laredo, Harlingen and Edinburg. More than 23,000 graduates (physicians, dentists, nurses, scientists and allied health professionals) serve in their fields, including many in Texas. Health Science Center faculty are international leaders in cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, aging, stroke prevention, kidney disease, orthopaedics, research imaging, transplant surgery, psychiatry and clinical neurosciences, pain management, genetics, nursing, allied health, dentistry and many other fields. For more information, visit www.uthscsa.edu.