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Spokane medical student wins big research award

Spokane-based University of Washington medical student Alina Ferguson stands by a poster explaining her research project.
Courtesy of Alina Ferguson
Spokane-based University of Washington medical student Alina Ferguson stands by a poster explaining her research project.

University of Washington medical student Alina Ferguson has added a new bullet point to her resume: award-winning researcher.

Ferguson, a second-year student based in Spokane, was honored by the Western Region of the American Federation for Medical Research. Its Edwin E. Osgood Award is considered one of the most prestigious honors for university student researchers. She collected the award this week at a conference for medical students in Carmel, California.

Ferguson’s work explores the treatment of cancer patients who don’t speak English well near the ends of their lives. It’s inspired by her observations of the care that her Vietnamese grandmother received.

“There was this one visit where I remember her lighting up and just feeling confident and sitting up straighter and feeling more empowered because the physician really made an effort to listen to her and to hear about her concerns and used an interpreter correctly and well,” she said.

She says that kind of culturally competent care is often not available to people for whom English is not their native language.

Ferguson had had some training in diversity studies as a University of Washington undergraduate and decided this was a subject she wanted to explore for the research requirement of her medical training.

“I wanted to learn more about what I could do to alleviate those health disparities and find out more about the mechanisms behind it, why they’re occurring and why it’s persisting this long,” she said.

Ferguson worked with UW palliative care physician Rashmi Sharma and interviewed patients about their experiences.

“We saw that those with limited English proficiency had higher intensity end-of-life care that was not beneficial,” she said.

Ferguson presented the findings of her research at the Carmel conference. She’s also been invited to present at a hospice and palliative care conference in Phoenix in March. Then she intends to continue her work.

“We want to look at what kind of health care interventions we can do, specifically in the hospital setting level, because a lot of our measures and outcomes were found to be different at the hospital level, the quality of palliative care resources available,” she said. “We also want to look at why we are seeing the differences in the limited English proficiency group. We’ll go into the communities and survey community leaders to see what the needs of the community are, since there is such a great diversity. We want to tailor the interventions to meet the group’s needs.”

Ferguson says the disparities are not for lack of trying by providers to give appropriate care.

“There are cultural navigators who will help mediate the cultural differences between the health care team and patients,” she said.

It just doesn’t always work out well for patients.

Ferguson’s grandmother, though, found a doctor who was a good match.

“There was an openness by the physician to her [grandmother’s] goals. She was open to non-Western medicine as well, incorporating traditional medicines from Southeast Asia. She was open to seeing if we could do that in addition to Western medicine,” Ferguson said.

And the doctor had the right bedside manner.

“Just by non-verbal ways. Holding eye contact, nodding. Even though they couldn’t speak the same language, talking to the patient directly, instead of the interpreter. I think that all made a difference in her care and I saw her feeling more empowered at the end of the day,” Ferguson said.

Doug Nadvornick has spent most of his 30+-year radio career at Spokane Public Radio and filled a variety of positions. He is currently the program director and news director. Through the years, he has also been the local Morning Edition and All Things Considered host (not at the same time). He served as the Inland Northwest correspondent for the Northwest News Network, based in Coeur d’Alene. He created the original program grid for KSFC. He has also served for several years as a board member for Public Media Journalists Association. During his years away from SPR, he worked at The Pacific Northwest Inlander, Washington State University in Spokane and KXLY Radio.