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Kevin Glover '16

Medical Student's Innovative Research Aims to Improve Healthcare for Refugees

"I think doctors should have a big imagination
for their responsibility to society."

– Kevin Glover '16

Spokane is home to more than 10,000 refugees who have been resettled through World Relief Spokane. "Since the cuts to refugee resettlement beginning in 2016, the city's refugee community has been on my heart as a group of people who are both resilient and structurally vulnerable," says Kevin Glover '16, a first-year student in the University of Washington School of Medicine in Spokane.

Through a University of Washington research mentorship, Glover is doing community-based research on the factors that help or hinder refugees in Spokane from getting the healthcare they need. "This has never been done here before," Glover says, "but there are already incredible organizations serving a vibrant, resilient population of refugees whose strengths we want to amplify."

In this Q&A, Glover, who majored in biology at Whitworth, shares about why this research project matters, why doctors should have big imaginations, two key C's for research success, and more.

Q. Why is this community-based research project important?

A. Refugees experience higher rates of chronic pain, mood disorders, post-traumatic stress and anxiety than the general population. Many have been tortured in their home countries. Non-communicable chronic diseases like diabetes mellitus and hypertension are also found in refugee populations, and refugees may be lacking health screenings that most people in the U.S. take for granted. Malnutrition is also prevalent among refugee children. So there are enormous needs for healthcare and social support.

At the same time, studies show that refugees are an economic asset to the countries in which they settle. Everyone thrives when our communities are home to healthy and adequately supported refugee neighbors.

Q. What is the main goal of the community-based research you're doing?

A. There is a lack of research around how refugees resettled in the U.S. get the care that they need, which is complicated in part by the fragmented nature of this country's healthcare and insurance systems. The goal of our study is to fill in some of the knowledge gap around what makes it easier for refugees to get the healthcare they need and what makes it more difficult, leading to actionable and concrete policy recommendations.

Q. How are you carrying out the research in Spokane?

A. The big idea of community-based research is to locate expert knowledge in the community, not the academy. That's why the University of Washington research team is partnering closely with World Relief Spokane and Unify Community Health, which provide the bulk of healthcare for refugees after their arrival.

The UW research team is doing semi-structured interviews with refugee families, former refugees now working in healthcare, healthcare providers, administrators, interpreters and other professionals. Then we analyze the transcripts, systematize what we find, and share that back with the community.  

Q. How can doctors make a positive difference for vulnerable communities?

A. I think doctors should have a big imagination for their responsibility to society. For me, it is really dissatisfying to imagine a lifetime of seeing patients one-on-one without doing anything to change some of the systems that generate illness and disability. That feels like plugging gum into cracks in the wall of a dam. We also need to fix the dam: Physicians are well-placed to do this because our clinical practice brings us into intimate familiarity with the problems of vulnerable people, but we also have the social capital to advocate for changes in systems and policies.

Q. How did your experience at Whitworth impact your passion for community-based research?

A. A lot of research is done on underserved communities, but quite a bit less research is done with underserved communities. There is such a sad legacy of science extracting knowledge through the exploitation of vulnerable communities. Doing research alongside vulnerable communities, trying to partner with them and accompany them in their struggle, resolves some of the ethical dilemma of who benefits from academic research. Whitworth prepared me to ask who research is being done for: Who benefits, and who might suffer harm from it? 

Q. How did Whitworth help prepare you for conducting research?

A. The biggest thing is the critical-thinking skills that I learned at Whitworth. A lot of that came from the one-on-one faculty relationships that I developed, which is one of the most enduring benefits of my education there. Faculty members really pushed me to challenge my ideas and to think more critically. They didn't let me skate by. I came out of Whitworth ready to interrogate my own ideas and, now, the biomedical culture that I'm being trained in.

Q. What advice would you give Whitworth students who want to do research they're passionate about?

A. Do things that nurture your sense of curiosity. It's good to be curious about both people and their ideas about the world. Research is how science works out curiosity. It doesn't matter if you're doing bench science or big-picture community health: You have to start with curiosity. 

Several years after graduating from Whitworth, Kevin Glover '16 found a "circle of support" at Whitworth that propelled him into medical school. Read his story in Whitworth Today.