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Stirring up political action in health care through partnerships suits graduate student Anjli Aurora just fine
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Anjli Aurora, 06N, remembers the first time she attended a HealthSTAT leadership symposium at Emory more than two years ago. The topic was childhood obesity, participants were required to submit an essay, and attendance was limited.
      Now a graduate nursing student majoring in maternal and infant health, Aurora had a "vested interest" in the subject, she says. She sent in her essay.
      But of the 40 medical, public health, and nutrition students attending the event, she was the only nursing student.
      "When they went around the room asking people what school they were in, I was the only one in nursing school. I thought, ‘Huh, now that's a little disappointing.' "
      That didn't stop the Woodruff Scholar, who was inspired by the programming for the three-day event and joined the organization.
      "They had knowledgeable speakers, and it was very interactive," says Aurora. "We developed an action plan on things we thought were important to address in childhood obesity and published a paper from the symposium. The paper was sent to policymakers and people who can make a difference. I had a feeling that my voice was being heard."
A full plate
With a motto of "Care, Learn, Act," HealthSTAT stands for Health Students Taking Action Together, and it's the action-oriented environment and the ability to make a difference that prompted Aurora, and hundreds of other students across the state, to make their mark on the future of health care.
     Formed five years ago by five Emory health sciences students concerned about growing health disparities and an educational gap between the classroom and real-world issues, HealthSTAT has grown to 1,000 students across the state from Emory University, the Medical College of Georgia, Morehouse School of Medicine, Mercer University, and the University of Georgia, among others. Its membership includes all health professions and embraces business and law students concerned about the future of health care.
     As president in 2005 of the Emory Student Nurses Association and as the Breakthrough to Nursing director for the Georgia Association of Nursing Students, Aurora publicized HealthSTAT's objectives and programs and encouraged other nursing school students—both at Emory and across the state—to get involved.
     Getting into the thick of things is normal for Aurora, who admits she "likes to carry a lot on my plate."
     After receiving her undergraduate degree in biology and women's studies at the University of Michigan and her master's degree in public health at Boston University, she came to Emory to earn her BSN "knowing no one but my boyfriend." But she already had a firm idea of getting involved in issues that affected her patients. HealthSTAT has been a good fit for Aurora, who is HealthSTAT's incoming president of the board. "The biggest issue for HealthSTAT is that of the uninsured patients who are marginalized in any way," she says. "It is so underestimated what good health means to people and how that is linked to access to health care."
     Getting information to patients is important, she adds. "The public turns to us as future health professionals when they want to know issues about health care. In school, it's imperative to expose yourself to an issue-oriented curricula, and it's important to get that before entering the workforce. If you get that experience when you are in school, you'll think about it more when you're out of school."
  Working the system
HealthSTAT's programming emphasizes access to care for children, childhood obesity, uninsured immigrants, and continual education about HIV/AIDS. Although she originally "hated politics," Aurora and her fellow students learned it was important to know how the legislative system—and politics—work. And sometimes, the issues don't seem to address health care at first.
     For example: "The immigration bills have been at the top of the list (in the state legislature), but part of that issue has to do with access to health care," she explains. "HealthSTAT volunteers worked very hard to make sure children and those with emergency situations could not be denied appropriate health care."
     The group collaborated with Health Professionals for a Healthy Georgia, a group of professionals and students, to lobby against legislation that would have prohibited undocumented immigrants from receiving any publicly funded services, including prenatal care.
     Aurora and other HealthSTAT members did lobbying training and held rallies at the state Capitol, where she spoke in support of removing the restrictions for prenatal care from the bill.
     "The final bills that went to committee had most of the health care provisions taken out of them," Aurora says with satisfaction.
     Getting involved in the grass roots of helping her patients is important to Aurora, who knew she wanted to "take care of people" at an early age.
     "I wanted to dedicate my life to encouraging people to stand up for what they believe. I wanted to empower people," she says. "That's what HealthSTAT wants to do, and that's why I'm so attracted to the organization."
  True to form
And true to its mission, the group follows through with action. A childhood obesity symposium two years ago sparked several projects, including Stepping for Health, a pilot program in Augusta. The program involves local
fraternities who teach elementary school-children elaborate "step" dances. Stepping for Health also offers interactive nutritional advice and PowerPlay (Preventing Obesity through Wellness Education and Recreation: Providing Lifestyle Alternatives for Youths), a 12-week program for children ages 11 to 17.
     An oral history project on HIV/AIDS and a fall leadership symposium on the subject resulted in suggested curricula reforms to help students better understand and help their
HIV/AIDS patients and also address prevention more proactively. Aurora is working on that curriculum reform, which the group hopes to pilot in the School of Nursing this year.
     "Our goal is to create a student movement of future health professionals who will start engaging in community action and continue that as professionals," says Larissa Thomas, current HealthSTAT president and an Emory medical student.
     "The nature of health education can make you self-centered—you sacrifice a lot," she adds. "But almost everyone who comes into medical and nursing schools wants to help people. The goal of HealthSTAT is to show students that even though they're busy, they can remain true to that desire to help people even while they're students. We try to emphasize that waiting until you're in your career to get involved isn't necessarily the best way to go. The sense
of community activism and getting involved starts now."
     Dr. Arthur Kellermann, an Emory physician and a longtime health advocate, has worked with the group since its inception.
     "HealthSTAT is a student-led organization that has achieved remarkable results in a short time," he says. "I am amazed at what these professional students manage to accomplish, given their heavy academic and clinical schedules."
     Most recently, HealthSTAT received a $100,000 Kellogg Foundation grant to support leadership development and building more infrastructure, including website development and more symposiums similar to the one that first attracted Aurora to the group. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation gave the group a $56,000 grant for an online journal.
     State Senator David Adelman, a member of Georgia's Health and Human Services Committee, has advised HealthSTAT students on the budgetary and Medicaid reimbursement process since the organization's beginning.
     "They are a bright group of people. I like to think I've helped them with advocacy strategy and understanding the state budget, but usually when they call me, they already have the answer and want me to confirm it," Adelman says.

Building collegiality
What also makes HealthSTAT so remarkable, admirers say, is its multidisciplinary scope and its loose structure: Students do as much or as little as they are able, whether it's sending postcards to legislators, organizing programming for elementary schools, or hosting a candlelight vigil.
     In the process, they cut across disciplinary lines, forming friendships and contacts with students who share their passion. That impresses Ann Connor, who has seen the group leap into action over legislative issues.
     "They are building collegiality on a multidisciplinary and multi-university level, and I trust that will carry over into their professional lives," says Connor, clinical assistant professor in the School of Nursing. "They are working so passionately together on issues that really matter."
     That passion is evident in Aurora's enthusiasm for HealthSTAT, which continues to pay off. During the fall 2005 HealthSTAT leadership symposium on HIV/AIDS, the "What school?" question went around. This time, she wasn't
     "When they got around to asking what schools everyone was from and said, ‘Raise your hand if you're a nursing student,' more than half the room raised their hands, and people started clapping. It was great."

For more information about HealthSTAT,

Rebecca Rakoczy is an Atlanta freelance writer.
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