Medical students take it to the streets in the name of public health

Medical students learn about the Healing Garden at the Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital.

David Hungate

First-year students from the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine take part in a walking tour of Roanoke Valley to learn about the area’s history, culture, and public health needs. Here, Liz Belcher, coordinator for the Roanoke River Greenway, explains the objectives of Carilion Clinic’s Healing Arts Garden.

Walking along Roanoke’s greenways and through downtown is good for your health, and recently Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine students did just that – for your health. It was part of the school’s program that teaches medical students that to be better doctors, you have to know your patients. And to know your patients, you need to know their community.

The third annual Let’s Talk Public Health Walking Tour sought to show the school’s newest students the importance of understanding how people live in the areas they serve. The tour was hosted by Dr. David Trinkle, the school’s associate dean for community and culture.

“Roanokers have wonderful opportunities to stay healthy with such amazing surroundings,” Trinkle said. “Carvin’s Cove, the greenways, and the many local parks give people the chance to get outside, start moving, and stay healthy.”

The two-and-a-half mile course took the students from the school, across the street to the former site of a metal scrapyard that was recently transformed into apartments, to the greenway that snakes along the Roanoke River. The students then headed downtown, ending at the Market Building.

It’s part of the school’s curriculum that teaches the value of public health, with a focus on preventing diseases and injuries as well as promoting healthy lifestyles. “Many people think of doctors only in clinical settings,” says Trinkle. “But we want our doctors to think of their patients at all times. We want our doctors to see how trees affect air quality. We want them to understand how a busy street with no sidewalks can be deadly. We want them to consider how they might help make positive changes to the communities they serve – because it’s always better to prevent an injury or illness than it is to treat it.”

Along the walk, more than a dozen local experts gave short talks on a range of topics that affect public health, from locally sourced foods to the hazards of busy roadways.

At one stop along the walk, Beverly Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Transportation Museum of Virginia, noted that the city’s history had not always been conducive to healthful outdoor exercise. When the railroad became the economic force fueling the area, he said, it also brought industrial pollutants that can cause illness.

He described the effects of coal being transported across the region, noting that the dust blowing from coal trains would collect in piles alongside the tracks. Since then, he said, improved railcar designs and reduced speeds have eliminated most of those concerns.

“It’s critical for doctors to know their patients, and not just the physical needs,” said Dr. Cynda Johnson, founding dean of the medical school. “To understand how to make patients’ lives better, you need to know how they live and where they live. It’s our job as educators to make sure we give our students opportunities to be part of the community in which they’re learning. That makes for better doctors and healthier patients.”

Written by David Hungate