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February Global Health Organization Spotlight: MEDLIFE

This month, AMWA’s Global Health department would like to highlight and recognize the work of MEDLIFE (Medicine, Education, and Development for Low-Income Families Everywhere). MEDLIFE aims to eradicate global poverty through sustainable public health and community development efforts. The following is an interview that our global health chair had with MEDLIFE’s founder and director, Dr. Nick Ellis.

What is the vision of your organization and what steps do you take to make progress toward your goals?  

The vision of MEDLIFE is a world free from the constraints of poverty. To address this, we’ve taken a holistic approach by addressing what we feel are the pillars of living a healthy life: healthcare, education and housing. We’ve broken these three areas up into three different teams and we address each of these as needed. When we’re supporting an individual, we try to look at their life from these three areas and make sure that we are addressing the problem in the most complete manner to provide the greatest opportunity for a positive outcome. For example, if we help a patient receive surgery and they also happen to live in one of the informal settlements of Lima where people have struggles accessing healthcare, education or a safe home, we may help provide the resources to receive the surgery, but we may also help with nutritional supplements so that the patient has the greatest possibility of healing after their surgery. We may also address their precarious housing situation, and in the most extreme situations we have built new homes for people. We would then certainly inform them about their health situation and about which risk factors may put them at greater risk for illness.


How does MEDLIFE define sustainability, and why is this important for Global Health?

Sustainability is crucial to Global Health, however I think it’s important to analyze the general idea, and in all of my years of working in Global Health, often sustainability is considered critical when a resource-rich organization, country or individual is funding a project for a low-resource organization, country or individual. Naturally this makes sense: people don’t want to spend money for something that won’t have a long-lasting or sustained outcome. However, I do think that it’s important to think critically about why certain individuals are subjected to the standard of sustainability while others are not. There are other factors that are just as crucial as sustainability in Global Health such as listening to patients, understanding the cultural backgrounds they come from, understanding healthcare systems within which patients navigate, among other things. The direct answer to your question is that given finite resources, we want to try and stretch the resources as far as we can to serve as many people as we can.


What does being a Global Citizen mean to your organization?

The term “Global citizen” refers to an individual that has an international perspective and that chooses to act at an international level. The reality is that the clothes that we wear, the food that we eat and many of the other products and services we consume are often made in resource-poor settings and we may not understand the full implication of consuming one resource over another. For me, being a global citizen is trying to understand where these products are sourced and ultimately what our role is when we consume them. Of course, if we take that a step further there are ways that we can act in solidarity with low-income populations that can directly help benefit their lives far beyond just the items we choose to consume. Ultimately this is the work that MEDLIFE has chosen to address: we try to inspire students toward a life of service for low-income and underserved populations. For me, that is what a global citizen is.


How have international experiences shaped you as a person, and how have your experiences influenced your work as a physician? 

As a physician, my experiences with MEDLIFE have primarily taught me that just treating disease is not enough. If you expect someone to heal, we have to look at the patient’s entire life, including their educational background, their income, any particular risks at their job, and any predisposition to illness. It’s through understanding a patient as a human being that we can begin to support underserved and low-income people in living a better life. For example, as a American physician that makes more than adequate salary, has a high level of education, and doesn’t have to worry about things like food or shelter, if I were to have a heart surgery, the risks that I would anticipate for myself might be very different than for a patient that has a heart surgery but lives in an informal human settlement on the outskirts of Lima. This patient may live in a makeshift home with multiple other families, may not have sufficient nutritional intake, may not have very much formal education or even have access to basic services like potable water or sanitation/sewage. These kinds of factors make all the difference in the world when we think about someone’s ability to have a positive outcome from a medical procedure or healing from an illness. Ultimately, we need to think about how to create equal access to outcome, not equal access to services. This is how we will actually begin to address social inequalities.


What drives your passion for staying involved with MEDLIFE and in a field of work where change seems so daunting and happens so slowly?

Dr. Paul Farmer once said that there are areas of moral clarity, and when you find yourself in one of these areas and you have the ability to act, you do. I believe that the reason this work seems so daunting is the scale – clearly the number of people in the number of countries needing services is immense, however the reality is when you’re a physician, you don’t treat an entire country – you treat the individuals in front of you. You can’t treat people that aren’t part of your network or community, and ultimately we all get to choose and define where our community is going to be. I’ve chosen that my community is the low-resource communities where we work, and in that sense, my responsibility is to provide the best care that I can to the patients in my community. I can’t address everything everywhere in the entire world all at the same time, and since no one would expect this of me if I was practicing medicine in the United States, I don’t think that they should expect this of anyone working in low-income and low resource areas either. Ultimately, what’s most important is what kind of human being you will be in your life, which community you will call your own and then doing your best to provide the best services you can to the members of your community. Every single one of us in the world can do that.


Do you believe in Life-long Learning, and if so, how do you engage in this philosophy?

Yes, I believe in lifelong learning, and for me this is broken into two paths. One is formal education, where you continue reading and listening to things like podcasts, and the other is to listen to mentors. Mentors may be a co-worker, a parent or a friend, or maybe someone living in an informal settlement on the outskirts of Lima, Peru. It all just depends on what you’re trying to learn. The key is to listen, understand, and take action. Initially you can take action with the supervision of mentors, but eventually you get good enough at what you’re doing that you no longer need that supervision and you can begin to act on your own.


How can AMWA members participate in your work?

MEDLIFE is working very hard to create a worldwide movement to educate people about the low-resource areas of the world and to provide healthcare, education and housing to the individuals that live in those low-resource areas. We need your help by bringing MEDLIFE into your university and creating new chapters and communities. By doing this, you help us network and expand this worldwide movement so that we can provide more services to more people, increasing access to Medicine, Education, and Development for Low-Income Families Everywhere.

If you have any questions about MEDLIFE, or would like to volunteer on a Service Learning Trip, please feel free to reach out to our global health chair at or visit the MEDLIFE website at!

Alexandra Alvarez

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