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Doctoral candidate Wafa Tarazi wins award for captivating research presentation

Wafa Tarazi, MHPA

Doctoral candidate Wafa Tarazi, MHPA, in the Department of Healthcare Policy and Research

For healthcare policy researchers like Wafa Tarazi, MHPA, explaining the results of their studies to people from different fields can often be a significant challenge. When your audience can’t understand small things, like certain terms or concepts, they’re liable to miss the overarching significance or impact of a study altogether.

To address this obstacle, AcademyHealth, a health services research and policy organization, sponsors an annual competition that challenges students to successfully explain a research paper in layman’s terms.

This year, Tarazi, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Healthcare Policy and Research, and three other students presented on Austin Frakt’s “Plan–Provider Integration, Premiums, and Quality in the Medicare Advantage Market.” The article discusses how integration between Medicare plans and healthcare providers relates to plans’ premiums and quality ratings. Each student had about seven minutes to present and had to act as if the audience had no expertise in health care.

Tarazi chose to construct a narrative as a way of expressing the article’s complex material.

“I used my grandma as the main character of the story, and showed pictures of seniors, a hospital, a health insurance company, and the Affordable Care Act to demonstrate the interactions between them. In addition, I talked slowly in a way that would make the audience easily imagine the story of my grandma and realize how policy changes could affect her health insurance plan.”

Tarazi’s approach worked, as both the panel of judges and the audience picked her as the winner of the competition. They highlighted her use of personal connection and vivid imagery as being particularly effective.

Although she appeared to breeze through the competition, Tarazi initially struggled to find the right tone for her presentation. After writing an abstract and being accepted into the competition, she took a few weeks to digest the article and produce a presentation. She then gave a practice presentation to faculty members Bassam Dahman, MS’07, PhD’09 (BIOS), Tiffany Green, PhD, and Lindsay Sabik, PhD.

“They didn’t like the first version of the slides. Although they liked the content and how I presented the important issues in the study, they thought the clipart and animations I used in the slides were distracting. To be honest, I wasn’t happy with the feedback at first, but as I thought about it more carefully I saw what I needed to change. I prepared my second version of the slides in two days and had a unique opportunity to present them at a meeting of the Advanced Richmond Toastmasters club. I proudly took my slides to the competition at AcademyHealth.”

The feedback from her third presentation, of course, was all positive. Tarazi says she felt an enormous sense of pride seeing a group of her professors and colleagues in the audience clapping for her after winning the competition.

Tarazi says she learned a lot about presenting complex subjects in easy-to-understand language. She will need to call on her newfound skills soon, as she works to complete her dissertation on breast cancer screening and disparities in care before her expected graduation in 2016.

By Jack Carmichael


Two GI fellows victorious in debate at national conference

Pritesh Mutha

Gastroenterology fellow Pritesh Mutha

The competition went down to the wire, with both the VCU team and the Johns Hopkins team relying on their preparation to perform under pressure. In the end, VCU came out with a decisive win on a national stage. No, this wasn’t a basketball game — it was a debate at the Digestive Disease Week conference between gastroenterology fellows from the two schools.

The School of Medicine was represented by senior GI fellows Vaishali Patel, M.D., and Pritesh Mutha, M.D. They were coached by their mentor, Puneet Puri, M.D., who is an assistant professor in the Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition. They faced off against a duo from Johns Hopkins to debate whether patients with acute alcoholic hepatitis should be denied liver transplantation outright. The two teams sparred through three rounds of competition, with Patel and Mutha eventually convincing the judges of the wisdom of their position: that transplantations in such circumstances should not be denied.

More than 14,500 researchers, physicians and academics assembled for the Digestive Disease Week conference in Washington, D.C., this May. It’s the largest gathering of professionals in the fields of gastroenterology, hepatology, endoscopy and gastrointestinal surgery, and there’s no shortage of reasons to attend. “The conference is a tremendous platform to learn about the newest research, see cutting edge technology and network with leaders in the field,” said Mutha.

Vaishali Patel

Gastroenterology fellow Vaishali Patel

The size of the conference, and the qualifications of its attendees, made their debate win all the sweeter.

“Being able to participate, perform and win on a big, international stage was a huge boost of confidence,” Mutha explained, “but we also learned about critically analyzing research papers and about the difficult process of making decisions and arguments on sensitive topics.”

The debate hinged on Mutha and Patel’s ability to synthesize information from a large body of work and use that knowledge to respond to challenges and questions from the other team on the fly – all while on stage in front of colleagues, friends and leaders in the field.

The debate was organized by the American Association for the Study of Liver Disease as a pilot program designed to test the skills of GI fellows at top medical schools. The group hoped that the debate would propel fellows to further their research on a relevant topic while honing communication skills in pressure situations. The competition also featured a debate between fellows from the University of Virginia and the University of Maryland.

By Jack Carmichael


Student accompanies alumnus mentor on an unforgettable trip to Haiti

Andrew Lyell

Third-year student Andrew Lyell had the chance to make an unforgettable trip to Haiti with his fmSTAT mentor, alumnus Kenneth Heatwole, M’84, H’87.

In the United States, you don’t often see malaria or a machete wound to the head.

But that’s what Kenneth Heatwole, M’84, H’87, and third-year student Andrew Lyell encountered on a medical mission trip to Haiti this past spring.

Family medicine physician Heatwole has been going to Haiti since 1990. On his most recent trip, he took along Lyell, who he’d met two years ago as part of the medical school’s fmSTAT program.

Like the other fmSTAT students, Lyell knows he’s headed for a career in family medicine. fmSTAT nurtures that goal through special opportunities like being paired with a mentor, a role that Heatwole volunteered for.

“Having a family medicine doctor as a mentor not only gives you clinical experience early, it also gives you time to ask questions and really prepare to be a future physician,” said Lyell.

Most of those clinical experiences have been stateside.

“I have been working with Andrew since he started MCV,” explained Heatwole. “He works with me in my office. We discuss life, medicine and the future over a meal.”

In April, an unusual opportunity came along, and Lyell accompanied his mentor on one of his regular trips to Haiti where, Heatwole says, his favorite clinics are held under the mango trees.

Kenneth Heatwole removing staples from a patient’s scalp

Kenneth Heatwole, M’84, H’87, used a Leatherman multitool – a sort of pocketknife for outdoorsmen – to remove staples from a patient’s scalp. The staples had been in place for two months to close the skin over a machete wound. A 5-inch circle of skull is missing under the remaining scar.

“I’ve traveled to many countries over the years, but my time in Haiti was unforgettable,” Lyell said. “Within minutes of arrival at the first clinic on the dirt floor of a church building, a woman entered screaming in labor pains and had her baby within the next five minutes. The mom had excessive bleeding after delivery. Fortunately we were traveling with some experienced midwives and nurses who had a medicine to stop the bleeding. The woman left that day with a healthy baby.”

Lyell said that many of the cases they saw in Haiti are common in the U.S., like high blood pressure, heart failure, colds and acid reflux. One challenge was working through an interpreter to communicate with patients. “Furthermore, I was entering a culture that I knew little about, so although diseases processes work similarly, diseases can present differently because of how people describe their symptoms.”

Lyell, who’s in the Air Force, hopes to serve military families and be involved in humanitarian global health work.

“He did a great job in Haiti,” Heatwole said of Lyell, “as student, clinician and teacher! We experienced things in Haiti that we will never see here. A lady delivered in the middle of our clinic. Another patient’s blood pressure was 260 / 170. We treated a leg wound pulsating with fly maggots and saw patients with malaria and chickungunya fever.”

Until about eight years ago, Heatwole made yearly trips to Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. He’s been going every six months since then, often with Midwives For Haiti. He’s on the board of the non-profit organization that fights maternal and infant mortality through training skilled birth attendants and operating a mobile maternity clinic that travels to 20 rural villages, seeing 500-600 mothers each month.

“It’s a great long term project that is making a huge difference in the lives of so many.”