On September 16-23, the Tufts University School of Medicine hosted its inaugural Health & Human Rights Week. Organized by medical students with support from Tisch College and various other campus organizations, the event featured a series of lectures, film screenings, workshops, and discussions that highlighted some of the most pressing healthcare challenges in our communities.

“We really wanted to focus on local issues because often, when we think of human rights, we think of slums in foreign countries,” says organizer Rebecca Lee, M16. “When I got to Tufts, I got this amazing opportunity to work with Health Care for the Homeless (BHCHP), and it was eye-opening to see so many health problems, health disparities, and just general suffering going on in our own communities.”

The week of events touched on topics like abortion rights, immigrant and refugee care, and child abuse and neglect. A speed-dating-style lunch allowed medical students to share their Community Service Learning experiences, and a workshop trained students to identify possible human trafficking victims in the emergency room. “That’s something really useful for students who are now going into their clerkships,” says Lee. There were also several hands-on community service opportunities.

Dr. Monica Bharel, Medical Director of BHCHP, delivered the event’s keynote address. She began by reminding the audience that Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights explicitly mentions both housing and medical care. Bharel then outlined some of the outstanding work done by BHCHP, which will serve over 12,000 patients this year, and told compelling anecdotes about how understanding their individual situations is critical to providing them quality care.

“Human beings live in their social history,” said Bharel. “That is where the real richness of medicine is.”

Bharel also pointed to the strong partnerships BHCHP has developed over the years with shelters, food kitchens, clinics, paramedics, police, and others. “It’s really important to include the community in work like this; we couldn’t do this work otherwise,” she says. That community involves the many Boston-area medical students who volunteer their time and, more often than not, find that caring for the city’s least fortunate is a personally and professionally transformative experience.

“One of my really passionate endeavors is getting students into this work, because the younger you are when you get into this, the closer it gets to your heart,” said Bharel.

For Rebecca Lee, that has certainly been the case. She has been part of the BHCHP ‘street team’ since her first year of medical school, and is confident that Dr. Bharel’s presentation will inspire others to follow in her footsteps. “We wanted to really encourage first-year students to get involved in actually doing something in the community, not just sitting in classrooms and learning about it,” says Lee.

This, of course, is something the Tufts University Medical School as a whole encourages through various programs that promote both global and local engagement. This year, the medical care of underserved populations was a particular focus, as incoming medical students received Dr. Randy Christensen’s Ask Me Why I Hurt: The Kids Nobody Wants and the Doctor Who Heals Them as a common reading book.

Lee hopes the Health & Human Rights Week will become an annual event that further showcases the Medical School’s commitment to active citizenship. “Overall, the response was good, but hopefully in the future more students will come,” she says. “We’ve put aside funds so that, next year, students can do something even better.”

Lee also thanked fellow student organizers Morgan Younkin, Nadi Kaonga, and Ji Eun Lee (all M16), for their efforts, as well as the Office of Multicultural Affairs, the Arnold P. Gold Foundation, and various student groups for their support.