For Residents

Volunteer Opportunities Within Dermatology: More than Skin Deep

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Native American Health Services Rotation

Located in the southwestern United States, the Navajo Nation is North America’s largest Native American tribe by enrollment and resides on the largest reservation in the United States.10 Comprised of 27,000 square miles within portions of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, the reservation’s total area is greater than that of Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire combined.11 The reservation is home to an estimated 180,000 Navajo people, a population roughly the size of Salt Lake City, Utah. Yet, many homes on the reservation are without electricity, running water, telephones, or broadband access, and many roads on the reservation remain unpaved. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 4 dermatology residents were selected each year to travel to this unique and remote location to work with the staff of the Chinle Comprehensive Health Care Facility (Chinle, Arizona), an Indian Health Service facility, as part of the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD)–sponsored Native American Health Services Resident Rotation (NAHSRR).

Dr. Lucinda Kohn, Assistant Professor of Dermatology at the University of Colorado and the director of the NAHSRR program discovered the value of this rotation firsthand as a dermatology resident. In 2017, she traveled to the area to spend 2 weeks serving within the community. “I went because of a personal connection. My husband is Native American, although not Navajo. I wanted to experience what it was like to provide dermatologic care for Native Americans. I found the Navajo people to be so friendly and so grateful for our care. The clinicians we worked with at Chinle were excited to have us share our expertise and to pass on their knowledge to us,” said Dr. Kohn (personal communication, June 24, 2021).

Rotating residents provide dermatologic care for the Navajo people and share their unique medical skill set to local primary care clinicians serving as preceptors. They also may have an opportunity to learn from Native healers about traditional Navajo beliefs and ceremonies used as part of a holistic approach to healing.

The program, similar to volunteer programs across the country, was put on hold during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. “The Navajo nation witnessed a really tragic surge of COVID cases that required that limited medical resources be diverted to help cope with the pandemic,” says Dr. Kohn. “It really wasn’t safe for residents to travel to the reservation either, so the rotation had to be put on hold.” However, in April 2021, the health care staff of the Chinle Comprehensive Care Facility reached out to revive the program, which is now pending the green light from the AAD. It is unclear if or when AAD leadership will allow this rotation to restart. Dr. Kohn hopes to be able to start accepting new applications soon. “This rotation provides a wealth of benefits to all those involved, from the residents who get the chance to work with a unique population in need to the clinicians who gain a diverse understanding of dermatology treatment techniques. And of course, for the patients, who are so appreciative of the care they receive from our volunteers” (personal communication, June 25, 2021).

How to Get Involved
Dr. Kohn is happy to field questions regarding the rotation and requests for more information via email ([email protected]). Residents interested in this program also may reach out to the AAD’s Education and Volunteers Abroad Committee to express interest in the NAHSRR program’s reinstatement.

Destination Healthy Skin

Since 2017, the Skin Cancer Foundation’s Destination Healthy Skin (DHS) RV has been the setting for more than 3800 free skin cancer screenings provided by volunteers within underserved populations across the United States (Figure 2). After a year hiatus due to the pandemic, DHS hit the road again, starting in New York City on August 1 to 3, 2021. From there, the DHS RV will traverse the country in one large loop, starting with visits to large and small cities in the Midwest and the West Coast. Following a visit to San Diego, California, in early October, the RV will turn east, with stops in Arizona, Texas, and several southern states before ending in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Dr. Elizabeth Hale, Senior Vice President of the Skin Cancer Foundation, feels that increasing awareness of the importance of regular skin cancer screening for those at risk is more important than ever. “We know that many people in the past year put routine cancer screening on the back burner, but we’re beginning to appreciate that this has led to significant delays in skin cancer diagnosis and potentially more significant disease when cases are diagnosed.” Dr. Hale noted that as the country continues to return to a degree of normalcy, the backlog of patients now seeking their routine screening has led to longer wait times. She expects DHS may offer some relief. “There are no appointments necessary. If the RV is close to their hometown, patients have an advantage in being able to be seen first come, first served, without having to wait for an appointment or make sure their insurance is accepted. It’s a free screening that can increase access to dermatologists” (personal communication, June 21, 2021).

Figure 2. Drs. Elizabeth Hale (left) and Julie Karen (right) working a volunteer shift aboard the Destination Healthy Skin RV in New York City in August 2019. Photograph courtesy of Elizabeth Hale, MD (New York, New York).

The program’s organizers acknowledge that DHS is not a long-term solution for improving dermatology access in the United States and recognize that more needs to be done to raise awareness, both of the value that screenings can provide and the importance of sun-protective behavior. “This is an important first step,” says Dr. Hale. “It’s important that we disseminate that no one is immune to skin cancer. It’s about education, and this is a tool to educate patients that everyone should have a skin check once a year, regardless of where you live or what your skin type is” (personal communication, June 21, 2021).

Volunteer dermatologists are needed to assist with screenings when the DHS RV arrives in their community. Providers complete a screening form identifying any concerning lesions and can document specific lesions using the patient’s cell phone. Following the screenings, participating dermatologists are welcome to invite participants to make appointments at their practices or suggest local clinics for follow-up care.

How to Get Involved
The schedule for this year’s screening events can be found online (https://www.skincancer.org/early-detection/destination-healthy-skin/). Consider volunteering (https://www.skincancer.org/early-detection/destination-healthy-skin/physician-volunteers/) or helping to raise awareness by reaching out to local dermatology societies or free clinics in your area. Residents and physician’s assistants are welcome to volunteer as well, as long as they are under the on-site supervision of a board-certified dermatologist.

Final Thoughts

As medical professionals, we all recognize there are valuable contributions we can make to groups and organizations that need our help. The stresses and pressure of work and everyday life can make finding the time to offer that help seem impossible. Although it may seem counterintuitive, volunteering our time to help others can help us better navigate the professional burnout that many medical professionals experience today.

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