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YSPH alumnus creates free clinic for refugee children inspired by personal journey

January 08, 2024
by Jane E. Dee

Binh Phung, MPH '23, used his time in the YSPH Executive MPH program to gain the expertise needed to establish a free clinic for Afghan refugees.

This story of holistically caring for refugee children reflects a personal journey 30 years in the making. The refugee child is me.

Binh Phung

Dr. Binh Phung, DO, became a member of the Yale School of Public Health’s inaugural Executive MPH class in 2021, determined to expand his knowledge of global health.

Phung matriculated into YSPH’s new EMPH program with several goals: to improve his teaching skills, and to gain a better understanding of epidemiological research methods as well as public health tools. But his primary goal was to improve the health of refugee children and families from across the globe, a long-standing aspiration that held personal significance for Phung, and which fueled his passion to develop a free makeshift clinic for refugees in Tulsa, OK.

As a board-certified pediatrician at The Children’s Hospital at Saint Francis in Tulsa, Phung’s medical practice involves critical inpatient care. An associate professor of pediatrics at Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences, Phung also teaches medical students and interns, and is an attending physician for the OSU Pediatrics residency program.

Phung, 39, had relocated with his family to Oklahoma from Vietnam in 1993 when he was nine. His father, an agricultural engineer, had worked for the U.S. government and was imprisoned for eight years after the U.S. withdrew its military from Vietnam in 1973. After his father’s release from a reeducation concentration camp and prison, the family immigrated to the U.S. through the Orderly Departure Program. The ODP facilitated the relocation of over 500,000 Vietnamese refugees to the U.S. before the program ended in 1994.

Phung’s pay-it-forward vision was for a free clinic that would serve another group of refugees, those from Afghanistan who had been impacted by the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2020-2021, which coincided with Phung’s admission into the EMPH program.

“Binh made the most of his time in the online public health program, both by taking courses that furthered his education, and by tapping into the wealth of experience of our faculty,” said EMPH Program Director Martin Klein.

Caring for Vulnerable Children

With guidance from EMPH faculty, Phung gained the knowledge and expertise to launch a free clinic for Afghan refugees and to implement screening guidelines. Klein connected Phung to Kaveh Khoshnood, associate professor of epidemiology (microbial diseases), who became Phung’s mentor and introduced him to other Yale faculty whose work impacts refugees. Phung graduated with an MPH degree from the two-year EMPH program in 2023.

“I’m always inspired by EMPH students such as Binh who use their personal and professional experiences to address a critical public health issue that is often missing adequate attention and support,” said Khoshnood, an expert on humanitarian health.

Phung’s EMPH coursework led him to produce four peer-reviewed publications, including an article in the journal Frontiers in Public Health that was informed by his work at the free clinic. The review article, “Caring for resettled refugee children in the United States: guidelines, challenges and public health perspectives,” explores the physical and population health profiles of refugee children who were resettled in the U.S. between 2010-2021. The article also includes updated recommendations for primary care providers, public health professionals, social service workers, and community advocates for addressing the health needs of resettled refugee children in the U.S.

The idea for the Frontiers review article came from the class, “Frontiers in Public Health,” that Phung had taken with Dr. Sten H. Vermund, MD, the YSPH Anna M.R. Lauder Professor of Public Health. “The class encouraged me to explore public health implications related to the resettlement process, especially involving children,” Phung said. “As both a fellow pediatrician and mentor, Sten has continually reminded me to consider the unmet needs of children and their vulnerabilities.”

Free Clinic Opens

“Any time there is a mass exodus of refugees, only a small percentage of families are eventually resettled in different states,” Phung explained. “Oklahoma was one of those receiving states for Afghan families. We had 1,800 Afghan families who were permanently resettled in Oklahoma with the aid of Catholic Charities of Eastern Oklahoma and local community organizations.”

Without a physical clinic location, however, conducting examinations of refugees is challenging. “Lots of people in the community wanted to help, but we did not know where to begin. Therefore, I started to consolidate guidelines and recommendations pertaining to the physical health needs relevant to caring for resettled refugee populations,” Phung explained.

“I was presenting PowerPoints for anyone who would listen, including my hospital administrators, seeking their support,” Phung recalled. “This collective effort eventually led to the establishment of a makeshift free clinic for Afghan families in 2021.”

“With the guidance and knowledge gained from YSPH’s esteemed public health professors, this goal became a reality,” Phung said. “A free clinic was established for refugee families, operating under Xavier Medical Clinic, with Dr. Rose Sloat, MD, as the medical director and funding from the Saint Francis Health System.”

The clinic is staffed by volunteers from the local community: physicians, pharmacists, nurses, dieticians, and other health care professionals. Services include health education, medical translation, culturally competent primary care services, medication assistance, and referrals to specialists.

“Various student organizations at OSU medicine, such as Gold Humanism Honor Society, the Pediatrics Club, Sigma Sigma Chi, and Student Government Association, launched the #LeanOnUs campaign to address the social determinants of health, and collected hundreds of essential home goods, personal hygiene products, school supplies, Teddy bears, and donated used bicycles for the benefit of Afghan families,” Phung said.

The clinic has since expanded to provide health care to migrant children and families from Honduras, Venezuela, and Guatemala. “There are now hundreds of migrant families in Tulsa awaiting basic health care services, but thanks to this makeshift free clinic, uninsured and medically underserved children do not have to wait as long to receive care,” Phung said.

Phung also collaborated with YSPH Alumna Sumaira Akbarzada, MPH ‘ 21, who, he said, was instrumental in helping him provide culturally competent care for Afghans when she was a member of the SalivaDirect research lab at YSPH.

Like Phung, Akbarzada was a refugee child. She and her family fled Afghanistan during a violent civil war in the 1990s, hiding in the back of a truck.

“Binh has been such a passionate, charismatic, and genuinely beautiful human being to work with, learn from, and to know as a friend,” said Akbarzada, a doctoral student at a Loma Linda University School of Public Health. “Seeing his compassion and dedication to the refugee community has been nothing short of inspiring. He has put his heart and soul on the line when working with this very vulnerable community and I am so grateful for people like him who truly make this world a better place!”

Phung is keenly aware that children like himself and Akbarzada make up a significant percentage of forcibly displaced individuals worldwide, and that children often lack equitable access to health care. “Out of the millions of forcibly displaced children globally, less than 4% have the opportunity for permanent resettlement,” he said.

“This story of holistically caring for refugee children reflects a personal journey 30 years in the making,” Phung said. “The refugee child is me.”

Submitted by Jane E. Dee on January 08, 2024