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Medical Student Initiative is Catalyst for Asylum Seekers

Penn-Human-Rights-ClinicImagine being forced to leave your country due to racial, religious, or political persecution, fearing for your life and the lives of your loved ones. This reality sends tens of thousands of people to the United States each year in hopes of a safe new home.  Unlike refugees, who arrive in the United States after receiving legal status, those applying for asylum may have no legal standing until receiving approval.

Now, with support from a Penn Medicine CAREs grant, a small group of Perelman School of Medicine students are expanding The Penn Human Rights Clinic (PHRC). This new organization focuses on one critical but often unavailable part of the U.S. asylum application: the medical evaluation. 

PHRC partners with Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) to provide psychiatric and physical evaluations of those applying for asylum. Each evaluation is conducted by a physician accompanied by a medical student, who work together to complete a medical-legal affidavit for their client’s court case.

The physician evaluations are not clinical diagnoses, but rather a forensic investigation presented objectively as evidence supporting an asylum seeker’s case.

“Physicians are good at like looking at a scar and seeing if it looks like a knife wound or a bullet wound,” said Elizabeth Nelson, the clinic’s Operations Director. “They might ask, does this person’s emotional state reflect post-traumatic stress disorder? Courts recognize the expertise of physicians to make that call.”

The seven-person staff, all first-year School of Medicine students, is led by Adeline Goss and Elizabeth Nelson. Anthony Rostain, MD, of Psychiatry and Pediatrics, and Alisa R. Gutman, MD, PhD, a fourth year Psychiatry resident at HUP, serve as advisors.

The group turned to PHR to conduct a training for medical students and physicians.  Based out of Boston, PHR trains physicians to document the effects of torture and persecution on one’s body and psychological state.  These clinical evaluations can make the difference between rejection and approval of the asylum application. Indeed, the organization estimates that 90 percent of those examined are granted asylum compared to a success rate of only 29 percent for all seekers overall.

While the examination is critical, it’s not always available in this region. It is this need that led Leah Seifu, a first-year student at the School of Medicine and PHRC Funding Coordinator, to apply for the CAREs grant.  With support from CAREs and the Penn Center for Public Health Initiatives, the group recently hosted a free, six-hour PHR training session on campus to train more Penn physicians to complete medical evaluations, write an affidavit, and, if necessary, testify in immigration court.

Since the clinic was founded late last year, four physicians have performed evaluations, and 19 students have been trained to document physical and psychological signs of persecution and write legal affidavits. Most recently, on June 15,the clinic partnered with Physicians for Human Rights to train 13 new Philadelphia-based physician and psychologist volunteers.

“Many of us came to this field with the intention of dedicating our lives to caring for other people and making positive changes in other people’s lives,” Goss said. “This affords us the opportunity to interact in a meaningful, impactful way.”

Photo caption: Members of the Penn Human Rights Clinic include (l. to r.) Leah Seifu, Anastasia Vishnevetsky, Jillian Olsen, Alisa Gutman, Elizabeth Nelson, Brett Dietz, Jennie Peart, Addie Goss, and Helen Reed.


Penn-cares-Sept-2013Penn Medicine CAREs Grant Winners

Congratulations to the next round of winners of a Penn Medicine CAREs grant:

Jamie Shuda   Perelman School of Medicine   Penn Academy for Reproductive Services

Kara Cohen  Home Care and Health Services   Best Foot Forward

Chiamaka Onwuzurike   Perelman School of Medicine    PCPC Women’s Refugee Health Clinic

Mawusi Arnett    Perelman School of Medicine    West Philadelphia Wellness Empowerment

Ellen McPartland   Pennsylvania Hospital   Stroke Education Prevention


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