CCHS faculty speak to Ghana delegation about rural health

May 31, 2024

Two College of Community Health Sciences faculty spoke in May to a delegation from the West African country of Ghana about University of Alabama initiatives to improve health, literacy and community engagement in rural Alabama communities.

Dr. Pamela Payne-Foster, professor of community medicine and population health, and Dr. Thad Ulzen, professor and chair of psychiatry and behavioral medicine, provided a rural health presentation to the Sunyani-Techiman Ghana Sister City Delegation.

The delegation brings representatives from Sunyani-Techiman, Ghana, to UA to create partnerships and learn about UA’s work in rural Alabama communities. Sunyani-Techiman is part of Tuscaloosa Sister Cities International, whose goal is to promote long-term, global people-to-people relationships through international leadership, friendship and understanding.

Payne-Foster told the delegation that she and Ulzen have worked together for 10 years to improve health outcomes in rural Alabama. “CCHS works to address the shortage of health care workers in rural Alabama,” Payne-Foster said. “Through our rural pipeline programs, we take students starting in high school and introduce them to medicine.”

The pipeline is part of CCHS’s Rural Programs and supports rural Alabama high school and college students interested in medicine and other health professions and who want to practice in their hometowns or similar communities. CCHS Rural Programs includes the Rural Medical Scholars, Rural Dental Scholars, Rural Community Health Scholars, Rural Health Scholars and Minority Rural Health Scholars.

“The whole idea is if you want to have health care professionals in rural areas, you need to find people from those communities and mentor and support them into pursuing health care professions so that when they return to their community, it won’t be foreign to them,” Ulzen said.

Payne-Foster added: “We also develop leadership and networking skills with the students and educate them on research in our rural communities, which have the worst health outcomes of any other populations.”

Studies have found that residents of rural communities are more likely to die prematurely from heart disease, cancer and stroke, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A lack of health care resources, transportation and health literacy contribute to these poor health outcomes.

Payne-Foster said she partners with rural community leaders to develop research-based ideas to improve health care. “I learned about this through the methodology of community-based participatory research and have found that some of the best ideas come from the community.”

Community-based participatory research involves researchers and community members working together to address diseases and conditions affecting populations experiencing health disparities, according to the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities.

Payne-Foster and Ulzen said stigma plays a role in health care and can make people more likely to hide their symptoms or illnesses and keep them from seeking care.

“There’s no greater stigma than one surrounding mental health,” said Ulzen.

Ulzen is a practicing psychiatrist at University Medical Center, which is operated by CCHS, and he educates and trains medical students and resident physicians both at CCHS and at Cape Coast Medical School in Ghana. “When I first started, there were about 12 psychiatrists in Ghana, and as of right now, we have over 100,” he said. “The majority of mental health illnesses begin with people who are really young.”

Ulzen said because of this, mental health resources need to be widely available, especially in schools. “We need to partner with our teachers and educate about ways to help take care of our children with mental health illnesses before they get serious,” he said.

He mentioned that telehealth is a great resource to use when seeing patients. “Technology can be used to bring physicians and specialists to the patient so they don’t have to travel as much,” he said.