UW-Madison Program Places Med Students in Milwaukee's Underserved Communities

Jan 9, 2018

The University of Wisconsin Medical School’s Training in Urban Medicine and Public Health, or TRIUMPH, program was founded nine years ago in an effort to better prepare students for the realities of practicing medicine in urban communities.  While the medical school is part of the university’s Madison campus, the TRIUMPH program is based in Milwaukee and partners with a number of organizations and providers in the city.

READ: Segregation's Impact on Metro Milwaukee's Health Disparities

Since its creation dozens of students have gone through the program, and all of them have selected residencies in urban areas.  Milwaukee currently has up to 50 TRIUMPH students a year practicing medicine within its underserved communities.

TRIUMPH is now headed by Doctor Kjersti Knox, a physician at the Aurora-Sinai Family Care Center.  

Credit University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute

A person's health is dictated by a multitude of factors, but half of those, Knox says, are social and environmental. "One of our goals is to improve population health and public heath. So being able to identify what those factors are and then work with our partners in the community on how we can improve them is important to taking care of our patients," she says.

Dr. Theresa Umhoefer-Wittry, associate director of TRIUMPH and a pediatrician and child and adolescent psychiatrist at Wheaton Franciscan in Racine, says that in order to understand the particular challenges these communities face, doctors and organization need to recognize the bigger picture outside of the office doors. 

"It's just a unique set of needs that if you're not aware of them and not asking the right questions, you can completely be missing the mark," she says.

Kox adds that the effects of racism, violence, or trauma aren't things that doctors can necessarily see, but these factors can manifest themselves into other medical issues. "I know people who have worked across the country and across the globe say that until they were working in Milwaukee, they had never seen such high blood pressures in patients," she says.

Doctors, Kox says, should take the step to ask more questions related to the patient's everyday experiences.

"Ultimately the reason that I decided to be in TRIUMPH was not really to come to fix the problem, but to be able to be a part of a program and a community that was looking at the assets that we had in Milwaukee...that are trying to address these health concerns from different angles," she explains. "And I think that really just lit my fire even more. Because being able to work with a group of people that are so passionate and can look and see the assets that are available to us is really powerful."

As for Umhoefer-Wittry, going through the TRIUMPH program herself helped her decide to pursue mental health services for underserved populations. "For me, just being exposed to it really has solidified that this is where I'm meant to work and use my skills," she says.