Thinking globally, right here

Global Outreach | Michael Westerhaus, M.D.
By Susan Maas

Location: Twin Cities, Minnesota
Mission: Elevating global health equity, starting in our own neighborhoods

Health and disease don’t exist in a vacuum. They are heavily influenced by family, community, culture, history, politics, and economic conditions. That’s the proposition at the center of a new U of M course, Global Health in a Local Context, that encourages participants to think globally, even at home. 

The inaugural course, offered by the Center for Global Health and Social Responsibility over 13 weeks last fall, included medical, dental, and public health students, as well as working health professionals from several fields. They represented various ages, races, socioeconomic backgrounds, even countries of origin. That diversity enriched every discussion, says assistant professor Michael Westerhaus, M.D., who led the course. “I think it was eye-opening for students to see how they each may approach a similar situation with a different set of responses, ideas, and solutions.”

Group of people walking on a sidewalk.

(Photos: Scott Streble)

Each week, the group met in a different community setting, from a rural Hmong farm to Mixed Blood Theatre to St. Paul’s Center for Social Healing. The changing locale “kept us from getting too comfortable,” Westerhaus says, and “attentive to the different dynamics and forces in neighborhoods. It prompted us to prioritize humility and respect of the places we entered and the people we encountered.” It also, he believes, stimulated creative ways of thinking.

For second-year medical student Hanna Nedrud, the class — particularly a session on getting to know your neighbors, facilitated by photographer Wing Young Huie in his Minneapolis studio — crystallized the importance of connectedness. “Isolation makes people sick; connection heals us,” Nedrud says.

Luis Ortega, also a second-year medical student, was inspired by the session on narrative medicine. “It emphasized the healing potential inherent in storytelling and mindful listening,” Ortega says, adding that it helped underscore how therapeutic it can be for patients to have their stories “witnessed and validated.”

And while Western medicine has traditionally encouraged healers to remain objective and neutral in patient interactions, the class explored how a medical professional’s unique life experiences can actually help him or her provide better care, Ortega says. “I’ll feel more empowered to bring all of myself and the various aspects of my identity — second-generation immigrant, person of color, working-class background — into [the clinic] in a way that can help me relate to patients and their communities.”

Learn more or apply now for the fall 2017 Global Health in a Local Context course.


Published on March 28, 2017

Photo above: The new U of M course Global Health in a Local Context met at a different community setting each week during the fall semester. In December they heard from Minneapolis photographer Wing Young Huie at his studio. (Photo: Scott Streble)

Submit your work

The Medical Bulletin is seeking compelling global health photos and stories by or about U of M Medical School students, alumni, or faculty members. Selected submissions will be published in future issues of the Medical Bulletin

For more information or to submit your photo or story, email managing editor Nicole Endres at