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Diverse Passions Propel Student Research on Health Care Access in Peru

06/27/2019

When she started college, Saint Louis University student Julia Griffin never imagined she would celebrate the Fourth of July at a Peruvian barbecue, or that her love of Latin American culture and medicine would lead her to researching health care access in South America.

Julia Griffin in Peru

While research health care access issues in Piura, Peru, SLU rising senior Julia Griffin (right) also served in the local community, helping to build homes, harvest crops and by working in local health care settings. Submitted photo

Now a rising senior, Griffin said that her research and experiences in Peru have propelled her growth as a student, Billiken and as an aspiring primary care physician.

“I never anticipated that this project would be so significant in my SLU experience,” Griffin said, “or that it would continue so much past my return to the United States.”

Interdisciplinary Passions Propel a Research Plan

Griffin, a recipient of the University’s Presidential Scholarship and student in SLU’s Honors Program, planned to pursue a medical career but also wanted to explore health care in a global setting more deeply. She was also keen to take advantage of one of the Honors Program’s Investigative Learning Experience Grants.

Market in Piura, Peru
Julia Griffin spent six weeks last summer immersed in community life and research in Piura, Peru, a city near the county's border with Ecuador. Submitted photo

A health sciences and Spanish major with a minor in biology, Griffin sought to create a research project that would integrate her passions for service, Spanish and medicine. With support from her faculty mentor, Elaina Osterbur, Ph.D., assistant professor of clinical health studies, she developed her research plan, navigated the institutional research vetting process and set up her surveys and other assessment tools. She also secured an Alpha Epsilon Delta Summer Scholarship to support her work.

From June to August 2018, Griffin surveyed 105 medical providers and patients in eight city health centers in Piura, Peru, conducting all of her research in Spanish.

Throughout the research process, from obtaining approval from SLU’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) to interacting with patients in Peru, Griffin said each challenge reinforced the skills and knowledge learned in SLU classrooms.

Cultivating New Insights Into Global Health

Community health center in Piura, Peru

Rising senior Julia Griffin conducted interviews and worked with health care providers at clinics and a hospital in Piura, Peru. Submitted photo

Piura is one of the largest cities in Peru, but its people face significant challenges when it comes to accessing health care. According to Griffin’s research, 32 percent of the patients she surveyed lack health insurance. Nearly 30 percent had to wait a week or more for medical care, even in urgent situations.

Less than 10 percent of Piura’s citizens have access to safe water supplies and more than 40 percent of its residents live in conditions impacted by moderate or extreme poverty.

Griffin met patients on home visits who were coping with gaping wounds, untreated hypertension and diabetes while awaiting treatment or appointments that could be weeks in the future.

“It is incredible to see how long patients have gone without treatment,” Griffin said.

Some patients she met, she said, would wake up at 3 a.m. to get in line outside of Piura hospitals in attempts to get a same-day appointment.

An Avid SLU Traveler Finds Community Abroad

During her SLU education, the Omaha native traveled extensively, studying abroad as a sophomore at SLU-Madrid, and taking part in medical mission and service immersion trips to the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Belize, in 2016 and 2017.

When not conducting her research in Piura, Griffin worked as missionary and parish aide at Santísimo Sacramento, a Catholic parish in Piura. While at Santísimo Sacramento, she delivered parcels of food and clothing, assisted farmers with work in their fields and helped clean a local children’s home. She also served at local health centers and shadowed physicians, nurses and other health care workers at a public hospital and local health clinics.

Julia Griffin with Peruvian colleagues

SLU student Julia Griffin (second from right) shadowed and worked with Peruvian health care providers during her research. Submitted photo

The relationships she formed with her Peruvian hosts, colleagues and patients, however, fostered an even deeper understanding of the many facets of cura personalis – the Jesuit belief in caring for the whole person.

“The medical professionals I worked with – Veronica, Mari and Jaquí – taught me more about medicine than I have ever learned in a classroom,” Griffin said. “The hands-on experience was extremely unique and is truly one of the most significant experiences of my life thus far. Each day I was challenged as I lived among the poor, communicated in Spanish, shared in celebrations and hardships and served patients and community members.”

 “I finally understood the values of patience, presence and compassion,” she continued. “Receiving so much more from the Peruvian people than I could ever give them, I have gained so much knowledge and wisdom about medicine that I will utilize to serve others in the future.”

What’s Next for Griffin’s Research?

Griffin presented a poster on her work in Piura at SLU’s annual Sigma Xi Research Symposium in May. She placed second at the symposium.

She will travel to New Orleans in November to present on her work at the National Collegiate Honors Council conference.

A research manuscript Griffin wrote about her Piura project is currently under review by the American Journal of Undergraduate Research.

When she returns to SLU in the fall, Griffin will work with Christina Garcia, Ph.D., assistant professor of Spanish, to translate the article and her research results in order to share them with the Piura community.


Founded in 1818, Saint Louis University is one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious Catholic institutions. Rooted in Jesuit values and its pioneering history as the first university west of the Mississippi River, SLU offers nearly 13,000 students a rigorous, transformative education of the whole person. At the core of the University’s diverse community of scholars is SLU’s service-focused mission, which challenges and prepares students to make the world a better, more just place.

Story by Amelia Flood, University Marketing and Communications