University of Kentucky Med Students Empower Youth With Knowledge of Skin Care.

by | Apr 2024

SKIN CANCER is one of the most common forms of cancer, especially in young adults. In the past few decades, the diagnosis rates for skin cancer have increased significantly. Combatting this trend can start young, as the University of Kentucky College of Medicine Bowling Green Campus has proven with its new Sun Protection Outreach Teaching by Students (SPOTS) chapter. 

SPOTS was founded in 2006 by medical students and dermatology faculty at St. Louis University and Washington University in Missouri. The community outreach program aims to teach students from preschool to high school the early detection and prevention of skin cancer. It came to Bowling Green this past year, and the Warren County Public Elementary Schools are benefiting from the work of local medical students led by Student Ambassador Chair Alicia Fields. Fields was looking for a program to reach local elementary schools and said the content of SPOTS spoke to her. The student ambassadors worked alongside Warren County Public Schools’ gifted and talented teacher, Morgan Meredith, to identify specific schools and dates to reach when they launched the community outreach program.

“I wanted to find a program that really aligns with [the] mission of the Admissions Ambassadors, and I also wanted to find something that would address the growing health concerns in Kentucky,” Fields said. “I felt like this program would give us a really unique opportunity to share the importance of sun protection and skin cancer prevention to adolescent students, especially at a time when they’re becoming more responsible for their own personal health practices.”

The trained volunteers went to their first school in October. They went to one more in the fall and two this spring. Fields said they hope to double their outreach for the next school year.

“We started relatively small,” Fields said. “We didn’t want to be too ambitious with a brand new project. We obviously wanted to make sure this would work for the school system and that it was what they were hoping for. We wanted to make sure that our medical students enjoyed the program because we wanted them to be very interactive and engaged.”

It might seem like a presentation like SPOTS would be long and tedious, but a very interactive PowerPoint presentation with engaged presenters means students love it. Fields said one even asked her if they would return the next week to teach more. The medical students covered the ABCDEs of detecting skin cancer and the ways to mitigate risk, and they let students use a skin analyzer machine to test each other’s skin. Fields said they primarily try to emphasize the beauty of natural skin.

“I think that’s such a positive message that we’re sending to children at this age, to [boost] their self-esteem,” Fields said. “You don’t have to give in to peer pressure. If everybody around you is tan, you can say, ‘You know what? It’s great; my skin’s beautiful, and I’m not changing a thing about it.’”

The schools in Bowling Green have been very receptive to SPOTS, and Fields and her volunteers are wanted in every school. Eventually, the University of Kentucky College of Medicine would like its SPOTS chapter to grow to that size, but small steps are necessary for both the planning and the recruiting of volunteers. There are currently 25 trained medical students involved, but the big challenge in getting more is the student’s schedules. For third-year students, finding times within the school day when they can help is especially hard.

“They’re either in a clinic or in a hospital, so it’s mostly first and second-year students who are delivering this,” Fields said. “I think as the program continues to grow, we’ll probably be able to incorporate some fourth-year students as well because their schedules have a lot more flexibility once they get to that point.”

Currently, the presentations are given to gifted and talented elementary school students, who are more likely to have an interest in STEM courses and medicine. As the program is able to expand, however, Fields said they would love to see it reach every elementary student in Bowling Green. After all, skin cancer is a risk for everyone.

Her biggest hope is that those children will have a much lower risk of developing skin cancer if they have the information they need — information Fields said she did not have when she was younger.

“I definitely wish I would have made different choices, and I wish I would have had students like this coming into my school and telling me, ‘Don’t go to the tanning bed,’ because I did. I did a lot when I was in high school,” Fields said. “If you know and understand the purpose of sun-protective methods, you can significantly decrease your incidence of having skin cancer in the future. I really hope that we’re going to be making a difference and potentially seeing those rates drop for our young adults.” GN 

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