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Charlotte native creates program to help local Latinos manage their health

UNC School of Medicine Charlotte Campus student Rebecca Flint is passionate about improving the health and well-being of Charlotte’s Spanish-speaking population.

According to US Census data, North Carolina has the fastest growing Hispanic/Latino population in the country and nearly 35 percent say they speak English poorly or not all. Flint, who volunteered as an undergrad at UNC Medical Center’s pediatric playroom, has seen firsthand how this language barrier can negatively affect patient care. She then received greater exposure when working for Spanish-speaking patients and their families as a first- and second-year medical student at the Samaritan Health Mobile Clinic which was launched as a NC Schweitzer Fellowship project. The Fellowship is part of a national non-profit organization dedicated to preparing the next generation of professionals who will serve and empower vulnerable people to live healthier lives and create healthier communities.

As a third-year medical student, Flint moved to UNC’s Charlotte campus and immediately began volunteering with Atrium Health faculty in the Department of Family Medicine at the free clinic at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. While there, Flint noticed a trend in Spanish-speaking patients. Although many had poor health literacy, they had a strong desire to get well and do what is asked of them by their doctors.

“I knew their desire to get well was something that could be easily addressed through education,” says Flint, a Charlotte native, who’s fluent in Spanish.

So Flint decided to do something about it. She applied for and received a NC Albert Schweitzer Fellowship to develop Support an Awareness for Latinos Undertaking Disease (SALUD), a chronic disease management program.

With the support of mentors at Carolinas Healthcare System, Andrew McWilliams, MD, Michael Dulin, MD, and Brisa Hernandez, Flint was able to recruit and launch a workshop series at the church-based clinic right away. Meeting once a week, each series is led by two system faith health ministry nurses, Rita Dominguez and Vanessa Nuñez, who are certified specifically to teach the evidenced-based curriculum developed by Stanford University.

The goal of SALUD is to help uninsured Latinos manage their chronic diseases through healthy living counseling classes. As part of Flint’s program, uninsured Hispanic adults with chronic illnesses, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, meet for a six-week workshop where they learn about ranging from diet and nutrition to personal health and develop tools to set and achieve personal goals. The support doesn’t end with the workshop. Medical staff and volunteers provide guidance for a six-month period and assess progress through surveys and tests.

“We finished our first clinic, which had 13 patients, and they’re doing really well,” Flint says. “They’re still receiving follow-up, and we recently finished up a second series of workshops, and started a third last week.”

Flint is already working on ways to sustain the project beyond her fellowship, having lined up two Spanish-speaking UNC School of Medicine Charlotte campus students who began working alongside her in July. In an exciting development, two community members who went through the first class have committed to becoming certified to teach the curriculum for future workshops. “We also have one or two more who may be interested,” said Flint. “Empowering participants to teach their peers is a fantastic outcome.”

This enthusiasm for supporting one another is quite evident in the classes. Upon hearing that many in the class hadn’t tried chayote squash, a vegetable common in Mexico, one of the women took it upon herself to cook and bring it in to share. Another, knowing how hard it is to exercise on your own, formed a group to walk and do aerobics, salsa and merengue.

Passionate about public service, Flint says the UNC’s School of Medicine was the only medical school she wanted to attend.  Attending UNC School of Medicine also gave her the opportunity to return to her home community of Charlotte-Mecklenburg for her third and fourth years of medical school.

“Atrium Health and the Charlotte Campus have a commitment to service and every student is involved in some way to give back to the community,” Flint says.

After graduating from medical school and completing her fellowship in 2016, Flint plans a career in pediatric medicine and will join the ranks of Schweitzer Fellows for Life who continue devote themselves to addressing health disparities and improving the health of vulnerable people.

“I hope to continue serving in this same capacity or greater as I progress through my career,” she says. “Having the support of the Schweitzer fellowship will allow me to have a group of colleagues to work with and develop ideas with in the future.”