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Med student wins 2018 Excellence in Public Health Award

Date: Wednesday, May 30, 2018

When it came to choosing a career, Erin Renfrew (M4) knew one thing for sure. She did not want to be an engineer, but it wasn’t until she was working with the Colorado Springs Fire Department that she realized she wanted to be a medical doctor.

“I grew up in a family of engineers, so I knew what that was about and that it wasn’t for me,” says Renfrew in a recent interview. What she did know is that she liked science and was good at it, so she headed off to Colorado State where she earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry. After graduation she worked in a soil lab in New Mexico and labs with the Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration, but something still wasn’t clicking for her.

Looking for more meaningful work, she joined the Colorado Springs Fire Department working in the Community and Public Health Division, where she got a taste of community paramedicine and public health programming. 

“I loved doing the hands-on patient care and as community paramedicine workers we were providing health care in the community, seeing how people were living and trying to help them,” she says. “It really opened my eyes to the importance of social determinants of health and inequities in the health care system.”

Award presentation

Lieutenant Commander Jane McLaughlin, at right, of the U.S. Public Health Service, presents Erin Renfrew with the 2018 Excellence in Public Health Award. Sponsored by the Service’s Physicians Professional Advisory Committee, the award honors medical students who increase awareness about health care and put that knowledge into action.

Patient engagement

She also saw how patients and others engaged with doctors.

“It was very enlightening—if a doctor said it, people listened. That was when I knew if I wanted to make a difference I should be a doctor,” she says.

Renfrew began looking for medical schools and landed at the UI Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine in 2015. With her passion for caring for the underserved, it did not take her long to find her way to the Global Health Distinction Track.

Taking advantage of UI opportunities

Director of Global Health Programs Robin Paetzold, notes, “During her three years in medical school, Erin has gone above and beyond in advocating for the health of our communities with a focus on marginalized populations. She has consistently advocated for addressing the needs of the marginalized, for fighting health injustices as a human rights issue, and to making a difference in the world.”

Paetzold adds: while pursuing medical school clerkships, Renfrew consistently strove to work with rural and communities in need, including seeking out a four-week experience the Indian Health Services, assigned to the Tuba City IHS hospital in the Navajo Nation.

For these reasons, and Renfrew’s work in the initiatives and programs below, the UI Carver College of Medicine nominated her for the 2018 Excellence in Public Health Award from the U.S. Public Health Service. Each year, every U.S. medical school is able to nominate one student for their dedication to public health by making exceptional contributions to the community.

Renfrew’s contributions have included:

  • Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition—Working regionally and statewide, she joined in with other UI medical students to lobby for policy change; work to provide direct outreach services to current users and their social networks in the form of naloxone and safer injection kits; refer clients to HCV/HIV testing services; recruit and train new harm reduction volunteers, and advocate for legal needle exchange. 
  • Community volunteer—Initiating malnutrition intervention feasibility studies as well as providing clinical follow-up alongside local community health workers while in Arcahaie, Haiti.
  • Vice President of the Global Medicine Society—Organizing activities and programs for medical students interested in global health and addressing health inequalities.
  • Physician Involvement in the Death Penalty—Organizing a discussion series, hosting of national speaker Sister Helen Prejean, and creating a group podcast on the topic that was distributed nationally.
  • Volunteering—in the Mobile Clinic and Iowa City Domestic Intervention Program.

Renfrew doesn’t seek recognition for her work, going about it with quiet commitment, but others have noticed and she has received other honors—the Freeman Fellowship for Global Health, the Samuelson Scholarship for Global Health, and Outstanding Student Leader Award from UI Caver College of Medicine.

In addition, she is one of two medical students chosen by the college to pursue studies at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, during her final year of medical school. Her work in Sweden will focus on harm reduction for drug users including analysis of the challenges of addressing methamphetamine usage and opioid addiction with consideration given to a more comprehensive health care system which provides effective mental health interventions and less restrictive needle exchange and harm reduction laws. Her goal is to use the lessons learned there to continue her work in the United States on these issues.

As she enters her fourth year of medical school and thinks about potential residencies, she is torn between Family Medicine and Emergency Medicine as she likes the “skill set” required for both. Whichever one she chooses and wherever she goes, one thing is certain, she wants continue to work with underserved areas and health advocacy.