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Northwell doctors, medical residents to help impoverished in rural India

The 14 doctors and residents will first spend a week examining villagers, and most will stay another three weeks and go door-to-door asking villagers about their physical and mental health.

Doctors from Northwell Health on Thursday talked about their upcoming trip to 10 villages near Bangalore, India, in the first step of a planned long-term effort to improve the physical and mental health of an impoverished population. (Credit: Marisol Diaz-Gordon; Northwell Health)

Fourteen Northwell Health doctors and medical residents leave Saturday for rural India in the first step of a planned long-term effort to improve the physical and mental health of an impoverished population that is largely from what was once known as the country’s “untouchables.”

The villages doctors will visit are a short drive from the high-tech metropolis of Bangalore, a contrast between the expanding wealth and technical expertise of one face of India and the continued deprivation of another.

The doctors and residents will first spend a week examining villagers. Most will stay another three weeks going door to door to ask villagers about their physical and mental health and aspects of their living environment that can contribute to health problems — such as indoor cooking fires that can cause respiratory diseases.

Indians living in extreme poverty are more susceptible to numerous maladies, some stemming from chronic malnutrition, said Dr. Jonathan Blau, director of neonatology at Northwell’s Staten Island University Hospital.

Doctors on the Northwell-funded trip will meet people in the rural communities who provide medical and mental health care.

Even though Northwell is not aware of any formally trained doctors, nurses or psychologists in the villages, “It’s often good community-based care,“ said Dr. Eric Cioe Peña, director of global health for New Hyde Park-based Northwell.

There likely are ways to make that care more effective, but Cioe Peña said doctors won’t know how until after the trip.

“I want to listen to them first,” he said. “We have a lot of technical expertise. We don’t have a lot of expertise in rural community medicine in India. That is part of the goal — to do a lot of listening with these seven to 10 villages . . . and find out what their specific needs are, what their specific resources are, and work with them.”

Northwell doctors also will meet with leaders of a Bangalore medical school to discuss a proposed partnership in which the school’s students and medical residents would regularly work with Northwell doctors, he said.

Long term, Northwell hopes to send two to three doctors each month to the villages, Cioe Peña said. The program could be a model for future Northwell work elsewhere in India, he said.

Amid the villages sits Shanti Bhavan, a school with about 300 students — most from the villages — who receive a free education and room and board from age 4, and then free college. Students from the school — the subject of the 2017 Netflix documentary “Daughters of Destiny” — come from families that earn less than $2 a day. School officials are introducing Northwell doctors to village leaders and residents.

Graduates of the school, almost all from the Dalit — formerly “untouchable” — Hindu caste that has faced generations of discrimination and poverty, are now professionals earning salaries that support themselves and their families, said Erika Imam, a Manhattan-based senior adviser to the school. Only one child per family can enroll in the school, so some siblings become resentful, and some Shanti Bhavan students feel guilty, she said.

That guilt is among mental-health issues that may come up during an assessment at the school, said Dr. John Young, who oversees psychiatric education at Northwell’s Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, Queens. Students already receive medical care, but good mental health also is critical for academic success, he said.

In the school and in the villages, Northwell will work closely with those who already provide mental-health counseling, he said. Villagers enduring extreme poverty and social marginalization face multiple mental-health challenges, but, Young said, “They’ve survived and overcome tremendous adversity.”

Discussing mental health issues with villagers is “identifying needs but also strengths, so we can support those,” Young said.

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