HKU medical students in street crusade

Medical students launch creative street campaigns to boost public awareness

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 April, 2013, 9:41am

Aspiring doctors from the University of Hong Kong's (HKU) faculty of medicine have put a street-smart spin on health awareness campaigns to reach the average, busy Hongkonger.

Their creative initiatives include roadside dramas about bone-marrow donation and on-the-spot demos for pedestrians on how to treat a victim of a heart attack, to campaigns on the importance of colorectal cancer screenings.

This is to teach students that, as future doctors, they should also be public health advocates, says Dennis Ip Kai-ming, clinical assistant professor with HKU's Department of Community Medicine.

The project, which began in 1999, is part of the school's Problem-based Public Health module, which is compulsory for all Year Three students.

Ip says the programme is unique. "As far as we are aware, this is the only health advocacy programme taught in a comprehensive and systematic manner in any undergraduate medical curriculum in the whole world," he says.

The two-month course consists of seminars, tutorials about public health issues in Hong Kong and the world, and advocacy campaigns.

The module touches on common public health problems like air pollution, smoking, drug abuse, stroke prevention and the harmful effects of eating fast food.

Students have a responsibility and the ability to champion changes to address public health problems
Dennis Ip, HKU professor

Students are taught how to identify gaps in the public health system and how to formulate their key messages to the target audience in a simple and easily understandable way.

"We want them to realise … they have a responsibility and the ability to champion changes to address public health problems," says Ip.

Crystal Cheung Wing-lam and her group, for instance, found that bone marrow donors were severely lacking in the city, with only 1.3 per cent of of the city's seven million population registered as donors.

"The registry was set up around 20 years ago, but so far only 664 transplants involving bone marrow have been conducted," Cheung says.

"A patient has only a one in 5,000 to 10,000 chance to get a matched sample from people to whom he has no blood relation," she says. "Every year, there are 1,000 new cases of blood-related diseases like leukaemia and severe thalassemia [a recessive blood disorder] that require bone marrow transplants.

"I want to let the public know that you might be the only one out there who can save the patient," she says.

So Cheung came up with the idea of a drama performance to promote donation, refuting common misconceptions about being a donor.

"Many people think that it's a complicated process to be registered as a donor. They think that once they are registered, they will be subject to an invasive extraction procedure. But actually, all you need to do is sign up at the blood donation centre when you give blood."

The street campaigns are not just eye-opening for the public, but also for the students.

While researching for their project, Benjamin So Yu-fai and nine classmates found there was a dearth of cardiac-resuscitation devices - called automatic external defibrillators (AEDs) - in public areas around the city.

The device, if used within the first 10 minutes of a heart attack, can save the victim's life.

"Hong Kong lags far behind other nations like Taiwan and the US in the installation of the devices in public areas," So says.

"There are not many places in Hong Kong that are equipped with the devices. They have such devices in MTR stations but they are not displayed conspicuously. If someone sees a person keel over on the platform and goes to ask for the device from MTR staff, by the time they get it, it will be too late to resuscitate them."

To raise awareness about the problem, So's group spent time in the streets of Mong Kok and Causeway Bay in February to speak to passers-by about the importance of AEDs.

From his interactions with the people, So says they identified another crucial problem: "They don't know how to use the device. The government should boost education of the public."

The HKU students have been gathering signatures for a petition asking the government to install such devices in public places and teach people how to use them.

Associate professor Janice Johnston, of the community medicine department, says the project gives students a chance to be more involved with the community and become aware of the inequalities in the public health system.

"The project can help them gain experience of advocating for community," she says. "This project can give them much broader perspective about health within the community."

This was certainly the case for Matthew Law Chun-wah, whose project on colorectal cancer required him to liaise with professionals and organisations such as the Anti-Cancer Society and Cancer Fund.

"Bowel cancer is the second cancer killer in the city, with 4,000 new cases per year," says Law, whose group braved the Causeway Bay crowds to promote colorectal screening.

"People aged over 50 should get a colonoscopy once every 10 years. The colon polyps, which can be identified and removed, will evolve into cancer if they are left untreated."

Have the HKU programme's lessons resonated with students? For Cheung, they have. "Being a doctor involves a lot more than just curing patients. It's also our responsibility to draw public attention to public health issues that people might overlook in their busy lives."