Veterinary student’s team wins first place in global health competition


UF College of Veterinary Medicine student Rikki Schwarz is shown at center with her “HealthForce” teammates.

Third-year veterinary student Rikki Schwarz was part of a team of University of Florida students that won first place Jan. 31 in the 2015 UF Global Health Case Competition for their presentation addressing the critical shortage and uneven distribution of health workers in Sierra Leone.

It’s the first year that a professional program student from the UF College of Veterinary Medicine was selected to compete in the program, which is now in its second year. Schwarz is also a graduate student, as she is enrolled in the dual D.V.M.-M.P.H. program.

Graduate student Justine Nicholas, a master’s degree candidate at the college, also participated this year. Her team’s presentation received second place in the competition.

Schwarz’s team received $750 and will compete at the national level in March. Nicholas’ team received $400.

A multidisciplinary event, the competition is open to graduate and undergraduate students of different academic backgrounds and is sponsored by the university’s Global Health Council. Students must apply to be accepted into the competition, and only 48 students were selected this year out of 71 applicants. Ultimately, 41 students ended up in the competition.

“Participants were selected based on communication of a strong interest or career goals in public health, prior experience in public health or past work overseas,” said Dr. Sarah McKune, the group’s faculty advisor and director of public health programs in the College of Public Health and Health Professions.

The competition allows exceptional students the chance to demonstrate their ability to successfully work with partners from diverse academic backgrounds and experiences to solve a complex global health problem. The six-member teams received their case topic on Jan. 28, just 48 hours before they were expected to come up with ideas and recommendations that were then presented to a panel of judges consisting of experts from different academic disciplines across campus.

Teams received an executive summary that provided background about the West African country of Sierra Leone, which falls below the basic threshold of 23 skilled health professionals per 10,000 people as established in 2013 by the World Health Organization. Each team was to assume the role of a consultant group to the country’s government, and was expected to provide an analysis of the health work force shortage, allowing for available resources, historical context, consequences of the temporary emergency care and response currently provided, best practices in health policy and innovations in what constitutes total health and wellness, according to the case description.

“We had to find ways to make our solutions culturally appropriate so that we weren’t just coming up with aid workers who would come into the country, find a job and leave,” Schwarz said. “We had to solve the problem on a grassroots level, and to make recommendations based on all of our interdisciplinary expertise.”

The task was “a huge undertaking,” she said.

Schwartz’s team, named “HealthForce,” met for about an hour the night they received the assignment, then again the next day. In between, they created a Facebook group through which they shared ideas and status updates for focus areas that each team member had established based on their identified strengths. In addition to Schwartz, the HealthForce team included undergraduate students studying biology, natural resource conservation and mathematics, as well as graduate students studying medical geography and industrial engineering.

The experience of working with so many students from such diverse backgrounds, and whom she’d never met before, was eye-opening to Schwarz.

“I really learned a lot from my teammates in terms of thinking outside of the box when it comes to solving problems,” she said. “We were not allowed to talk to anyone in the UF system — no professors, no one affiliated with the university in any way who could have any kind of influence on our project.”

Students even had to sign an honor code to that effect.

“We actually used our own backgrounds to find out all of the answers ourselves, which made things more difficult but also more interesting, as we really had to rely on each other and trust that each of us would accurately represent our fields, because someone else might not know if something was true or false,” Schwarz said.

Her team’s overarching goal was to address the health care shortage and changing medical needs in Sierra Leone through educational opportunities, career advancement, local jobs, foreign partnerships and unique funding strategies.

The group used a three-pronged strategy for achieving their goal, which included a partial restructure of the medical system and facilities, enhancement of the educational system and innovative funding strategies.

One of the most unique aspects of the HealthForce team’s approach was its use of a “Wings of Change” concept that involved the creation of butterfly farms as a means for local communities to build a sustainable economy.

“No one else had anything else that was focused on the local level, on making a program sustainable at the grassroots level,” Schwartz said.

Comments from the judges reflected their appreciation for the team’s comprehensive approach.

“Great out of the box thinking,” wrote one judge. “Excellent representation of various disciplines in the proposal. It is truly an interdisciplinary view and approach.”

“Their solution was multi-faceted, relied on medical and health expertise in the region and ultimately created a local space for production of scientific knowledge that would leverage additional funding for their efforts,” McKune said. “It was an outstanding model, even with a few shortcomings, for a team to have developed in 72 hours.”

Project Connected Care

Justine Nicholas, far right holding the poster board, was a member of the Project Connected Care team, which won second place in the competition.

Nicholas’ second-place team called itself “Project Connected Care.”

“Our plan was aimed at garnering STEM interest in the youth population, and in doing so, we aimed to create a health care feedback system of sustainability to bolster and empower the work force of Sierra Leone.”

Her team proposed measurable outcomes in four specific areas and tied each goal to one, five and 10-year timelines of productivity and budget. The group also reached out to two local organizations in Nigeria for further insight, and cited information provided by WHO.

“This was my first year competing in this event,” Nicholas said. “The experience was overwhelmingly positive. I have a much greater appreciation for the skill set of collaboration and communication across research fields and interests, and how it’s applied to problem solving and real-time issues.”



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