The Life-Saving Power of Knowledge

By: Javacia Harris Bowser

The phrase “knowledge is power” may be a cliché, but it’s a true statement, nonetheless. And Albert Schweitzer Fellows Paul Jones and Josiah Perry believe that knowledge has the power to save lives.

That’s what motivated them to partner with Cooper Green Mercy Health Services and strive to improve health efficacy among the clinic’s patients.

For their ASF project, Paul and Josiah – both students at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Heersink School of Medicine — are working with patients one-on-one and in small groups to give them the information they need to gain a sense of agency about their health.

The project stemmed from an interest in education that both Paul and Josiah share.

Josiah tutored middle and high school students when he was in college. More recently, he’s helped college students prepare for the MCAT.

“I really enjoyed working specifically with people from lower income backgrounds and getting them to places they didn’t initially think they could go just by identifying some pretty easy things that they could work on that would make a pretty big difference,” Josiah says.

So, once he became an Albert Schweitzer Fellow, he began to think about applying this same concept to health.

Initially, he and Paul considered developing a health curriculum for local programs that work with middle and high school students.

“But we realized that we would make a much larger difference by taking our education interests and pivoting to a focus on health efficacy and how you can make people feel more confident about improving their own health and health outcomes,” Josiah says.

Paul was the perfect partner for this project given his interest in examining the social determinants of health. At Vanderbilt University, Paul majored in Medicine, Health and Society.

“It’s an interdisciplinary humanitarian major where we looked at the complex interactions between place and health and all these other different things,” Paul says. “And I worked with a lot of underserved people within my community in Nashville at the time, particularly working with elderly care facilities.”

For their project, Paul and Josiah collected data about the average Cooper Green patient to establish their baseline self-efficacy around their health. Next, they began leading interactive workshops to help patients find reliable information about different health questions they may have and to find ways to make seemingly difficult health objectives more achievable.

“For example, what does it look like to eat healthier instead of eating healthy,” Josiah says.  “If all you can do is get canned food at the convenience store down the street, if that’s the kind of food available to you, what can you do with that?”

The project has been a learning experience not only for the patients, but for Paul and Josiah as well. They struggled to create the right screening tool to assess health efficacy of the patients. And they learned more about some of the challenges the patients were facing. For example, when Josiah suggested neighborhood walks to a patient, the patient revealed that this was not a safe option for regular exercise.

“This might sound obvious to some people, but it wasn’t obvious to me, so there’s been a little bit of a learning curve,” he says.

Nonetheless, Paul and Josiah have made a tangible impact. For instance, they’ve seen patients who struggled with weight and mobility issues shed pounds and begin exercising regularly.

Before their interactions with Paul and Josiah, many of these patients saw weight loss as a “very nebulous and ill-defined journey,” Paul says. “They didn’t know where to start.”

Paul adds: “I think they also were under the impression that it was this very complex thing and you had to get all the different aspects of your diet or your exercise program right or else it wasn’t going to work. It was really rewarding to deconstruct that notion that they had and explain that something is better than nothing.”

Paul and Josiah are working with fellow UAB medical school students to ensure that the workshops they’ve piloted will continue after their project has ended.

The impact of the project will also be felt in their future careers.

“It’s given me a new appreciation for the complexity that can go behind something as simple as a patient not taking their blood pressure medication,” Paul says of the project. “I think a lot of the time, it’s easy to reduce that ‘this patient is non-compliant’ and maybe that’s what you’ll see written down on the electronic medical record. But after interacting with more vulnerable patients within our community, you begin to realize that there’s oftentimes layers of complexity behind those issues, whether it be transportation, health literacy, or digital literacy.”

Paul believes this experience will help him better communicate with his future patients.

“I’ve gotten a little bit better at creating that atmosphere where I can have those conversations and ask those questions,” he says. “Asking the right questions is important. And I’ve learned that starts with being a better listener and all of that will definitely be of service to me as a practicing physician.”

Furthermore, the ups and downs of the project have taught Paul and Josiah to be flexible and even shift how they define success.

“I’ve just gained a deeper appreciation for the fact that my goals are going to continue to change as my career progresses and that’s both natural and expected,” Josiah says. “I’ve learned to embrace that, rather than to dread it and run from it.”