Campus News

Laura Shepherd, a first-generation MPH student, aspires to improve rural health in Hawaii

Bokie Muigai February 22, 2024
smiling professional woman

Photo courtesy Laura Shepherd

While pursuing her undergraduate education in Hawaii, Laura Shepherd was drawn to addressing the health needs of remote rural communities. As she volunteered at various nonprofit organizations, she was introduced to an area of public health that would pique her interest. “I had no idea what rural health was, and when I got there it was all a big shock to the system,” admits Shepherd, a first-generation college student, currently in her second year of the Master of Public Health (MPH) online program in the Department of Population and Public Health Sciences at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

As a child, Shepherd aspired to become a physician. In college, she shadowed eight physicians for over 400 hours to gain practical experience. “During my work experiences in Hawaii, I watched as physicians dealt with the downstream effects of a poor public health system. They constantly had critical patients coming in, and they could barely keep up. This is where I saw the value in a more upstream approach to address health outcomes based on improved community and public health,” she reveals. It was these discoveries that led her to pursue a Master of Public Health degree at USC, to serve as a stepping-stone before pursuing a medical degree.

As a volunteer, Shepherd worked with Project Vision Hawaii. The nonprofit organization regularly dispatched a mobile clinic to remote communities to serve the needs of residents living with minimal health care infrastructure. “The doctors would provide reading glasses and free eye exams to patients and take pictures of patient’s retinas to test for any diseases. It was amazing to see how many people, in their 60s and 70s, walked into that clinic to receive an eye exam for the first time,” she remarks.

“If you look at state data about Medicare and Medicaid, it gives the impression there is a high utilization rate and everyone has access to healthcare,” she explains. “However, in remote areas with limited community outreach, residents remain unaware of the resources that are available to them.” To help address this, Shepherd volunteered with the Prehealth Career Corps, a nonprofit created by the Hilo Medical Center to conduct community outreach. “However, through this work, it also became apparent how rural settings can sometimes have strained resources, and in this case, there was a lack of manpower towards community outreach efforts.”

At USC, Shepherd was featured as a speaker on MPH Student Perspectives, a student-led discussion where she presented on ‘The Struggles of Rural Hawaiian Island Health Care.’ Here, she discussed her experience volunteering at various sites and the influence of the social determinants of health in rural Hawaiian settings. She also explained the native Hawaiian’s preference for eastern or traditional medicine and a distrust of western health care: “their medicine has worked for them for hundreds of years,” she affirms.

During her time at USC, she cites guest lectures as her most impactful educational experience. “Learning from industry experts especially those who have built their own public health initiatives off the ground ties into what I want to achieve with my own education. I received exposure to people that I would not have had without this program,” she expresses. After graduation, she hopes to attend Keck School of Medicine and become a physician.

Shepherd concludes by advising volunteers to make sure the organizations they work with are rooted in supporting the best interest of the people it serves. She also recommends to students with an interest in rural health to actively listen to the people in these communities. “They want to tell their story and they want to be heard,” she advises.