For second-year medical student Britney Sheena, the passion for practicing medicine runs deeply in her DNA.
Born in Houston to two primary care physicians, Sheena knew she wanted to follow in her parents’ footsteps from a very early age. But it wasn’t until she studied public health in college that she realized how vast of an impact she could make, both inside and outside the clinic.
“I learned there’s all these system-level issues that impact healthcare and medicine,” Sheena explained. “I feel like having the intersection and complementation of public health and medicine has influenced the way I want to practice medicine, because there’s so much of health that is not something happening inside of the clinic. It’s happening outside of the clinic,” she said.
Sheena, a voracious learner, pursued her master’s degree in public health and worked in population health research before applying to medical school. “I feel like the time I took off in between undergrad and medical school made me more attuned to a lot of the barriers that people experience to health – which has further solidified my interest in primary care,” Sheena expressed.
For Sheena, reflecting on these barriers meant also brainstorming ways to break them down – especially through civic engagement. As soon as she enrolled at Tulane University School of Medicine, Sheena sought out ways that she could get involved in getting out the vote, including by rounding up her fellow students at election time to help hospital patients file emergency absentee ballots.
Then, when she learned of the Civic Health Alliance Student (CHA) Ambassador Program – an opportunity for medical students across the country to stay civically engaged and advocate for health policies, inside and outside the school setting – Sheena was excited to join the effort. “I meet with other students from CHA, and we learn about the intersection between health and civic engagement, which is not something that’s really incorporated into the medical school curriculum,” Sheena explained. “So it’s cool to have lectures from people who have really seen the impact, and guidance from people who are deeply embedded in the field.”
As a CHA Student Ambassador, one idea Sheena is working to implement at Tulane is to incorporate voter registration into new-student orientation. “What I envision that looking like is [one of the CHA Ambassadors] popping into orientation or just putting up posters and printing out the voter registration applications and saying, ‘It’s in the student lounge; if you have any questions, you can reach out to me.’ And if they have questions we’re not able to answer, we have points of contact at CHA who can help us out,” Sheena said.
While Sheena’s enthusiasm for this work is palpable, she admits that it’s not without its challenges – particularly in finding the time and space to engage people, to convince them that their vote matters, that civic engagement impacts health. The task can seem daunting, she says, especially when people feel disillusioned with democracy; but the key is “to not get bogged down with some of the ‘no’s’ that are said because of either administrative or time issues, and figuring out ways to turn that into a smaller compromise. That way, you feel like you’re making strides in the work and in the field.”
As for Sheena, she plans to make plenty of strides as a future physician, with a special emphasis on empowering her patients to vote – while rallying her fellow physicians to do the same. “I would love it if every physician felt comfortable asking their patients if they were registered to vote, and then if they also had resources within the clinic that could help that immediately help that patient register to vote,” Sheena expressed. “I think that would be really great, because it would help normalize that it’s important for us to vote, that it’s important for us to talk about voting, and that asking about this in the context of healthcare isn’t inherently political.”
Ultimately, Sheena hopes this work can have ripple effects for a healthier democracy – a society in which everyone participates, from physician to patient and everyone in between. “I think it would be great if, in an ideal world, everyone voted and everyone saw the value of voting,” Sheena said. “If everyone voted, that’s what an ideal democracy really is, because everyone’s voice is actually heard.”
For more information about the CHA Student Ambassador Program, visit https://www.civichealthalliance.org/student-ambassadors.