June 2010

Meet Our Featured Guest Columnist: Tanyaporn Wansom

As a member of the American Medical Student Association (AMSA), Tanya Wansom raise awareness among medical students about vital health issues. She has trained future physicians to educate local middle school and high school students in their communities about HIV/AIDS, and participates in events such as calls to Congressmen to encourage funding for AIDS relief in Africa.

Q: What does "health and human rights" mean to you?

A: To me, health and human rights means that people, regardless of who they are or where they come from, should have equal value placed on their lives. Although I know this isn't true in the world today, I think it's unconscionable that 1.2 billion people live on less than a dollar a day, which is less than many people in the United States spend on their daily cup of coffee. 

As a global AIDS activist, I also equate the lack of access for first-line HIV/AIDS medications as a failure to value others' lives. When life-saving medication can be bought for less than a dollar a day and people are still dying without the opportunity to access these medications, I view this as tantamount to telling them that their lives are not worth that much to the world. 

Q: What has your role been in the American Medical Student Association?

A: I've had a variety of roles in the American Medical Student Association, all of which I've been elected to by the national membership. This is my third year on national leadership, and the roles I've filled include: GHAC National AIDS Coordinator, Global Health Leadership Institute Coordinator, and now GHAC Chair. I'm also a member of the Aids Advocacy Network Steering Committee and an editor for Global Pulse, an online magazine written for health professional students, by health professional students. In all these roles, I've really tried to work with others and make sure that everyone has a role in the global health movement. I think it's always important to identify where different people are at, what's needed to push them to the next level, and realize that you need to always be looking out for and mentoring the next generation of leaders.

Q: What are some examples of your most rewarding work while serving as the Global HIV/AIDS Coordinator?

-Holding the first national AIDS Leadership Institute which brought medical students from around the country to AMSA headquarters for a weekend of organizing, strategizing, and education. These leaders helped build the AIDS Advocacy Network, then in its infancy, to the network it is today with over 100 chapters nationwide
-Building on and making new connections with partners including Health Global Access Project (HealthGAP), Physicians in Human Rights,  Global Medical Education Consortium, and more.
-Co-organizing a one-day conference titled "Medicine's Response to the HIV/AID Epidemic" attended by over 300 medical students prior to the 2005 AMSA national conference in Washington,DC; being part of a call-in that helped push a major funding act for HIV/AIDS through Congress
-Meeting (and energizing) students all over the country who are fighting global AIDS in their communities

Q: Why did you get involved in the American Medical Student Association's Global Health Action Committee?

A: Most of my work in AMSA has been through the Global Health Action Committee because working towards global health is what I do in both my personal and professional lives. Because I have a background working in HIV/AIDS, AMSA gave me the opportunity to educate others and become more educated myself, especially on topics that were not included in traditional medical school curriculum. Moving beyond education, AMSA was also a place where I could work with others to organize students nationally on important issues, such as supporting the AIDS Drugs Assistance Programs through the Ryan White Act, standing in solidarity with developing countries in their bids to gain access to essential HIV/AIDS medications, increasing funding for health care professionals in Africa, and protesting when United States pharmaceutical companies refuse to make their drugs available to those who need them most.

I originally became involved in AMSA because I was struck by the amount of apathy among my fellow students. Although some of them shared similar political [views], very few were willing to dedicate time to making a difference in the community. AMSA was a place where I found others who shared the same passion I had for community organizing, advocacy, and action. In medical school, it was my home away from home. Most importantly, AMSA had a strong tradition of leadership as an active, independent, national student group that often stood up for what was right - and not necessarily what was popular. Being a part of an institution such an AMSA and contributing to its future have been really defining - and humbling for me. 

Q: How are your American Medical Student Association experiences shaping your future career goals?

A: For me, it has always been important to figure out how I can use my experiences and strengths to find the best way I can contribute to the fight for global health justice.  As a future physician and health professional, AMSA has given me opportunities to develop as an organizer and leader. My experiences in AMSA have confirmed that my career as a physician will not be confined to the clinic, but will also include advocacy and activism.  Not enough physicians are at the table to put our voices - and the voices of our patients - at the heart of decision making about health care. 

Q: Your message?

A: It is important to recognize the power and responsibility that comes with being a United States citizen. Regardless of who you are or what you do, you can make a difference by taking a little time to call your legislators. Take action to support bills that promote evidence-based policy and funding for the most pressing issues of our time! If you don't make the call for something the United States needs to support - who else will?