Health-care competition harnesses the brain power of UNB undergrads

Dustin McKee is co-chair of the third annual Connect the Thoughts competition at the University of New Brunswick.  (Submitted by Dustin McKee - image credit)
Dustin McKee is co-chair of the third annual Connect the Thoughts competition at the University of New Brunswick. (Submitted by Dustin McKee - image credit)

An upcoming competition to find solutions to health-care problems is harnessing the brain power of undergraduate students at the University of New Brunswick.

Connect the Thoughts is now in its third year of trying to improve the province's health-care system, explains this year's co-chair Dustin McKee.

He said students are "often overlooked or are a little bit dismissed just because we're so young."

McKee said "undergraduate students can offer a lot of new insights to health-care issues. I understand that we may not have a lot of experience working in health care directly, but I think that it's important to consider life experiences as well."

While seasoned professionals "might have a better education and more experience … undergraduate students might be able to offer a different set of perspectives than the majority of those who are in health care right now."

The 2023 edition will focus on the opioid overdose crisis. The exact scenario won't be revealed to participants until the morning of Jan 21, when the week-long competition begins.

Timely topics

McKee said the first two editions of the competition have come up with great ideas that he's trying to promote to the Horizon Health Authority and some community-based groups to get them implemented.

The first competition in 2021, for example, asked participants to address the barriers that immigrants face when trying to access health-care services.

The winning team created a multi-pronged approach that included a series of pictographs to help those who may not be able to adequately describe their symptoms in English to health-care professionals.

"So I think that these are very creative ways to address very specific symptoms that might be implicated in a variety of different health issues that physicians and health-care providers can use to navigate through communication barriers with the patients that come from a variety of different backgrounds."

McKee said the idea has attracted a lot of attention, but so far hasn't been implemented anywhere.

He said he continues to promote the idea "and we'll hopefully see this one day in our health clinic."

University of New Brunswick
University of New Brunswick

The topic of last year's competition was mental health, which "was a bit more complex and a bit of a touchy subject, especially given the pandemic," said McKee. He said it's an interesting perspective, given that many students are experiencing mental health issues "first hand."

The winning submission suggested creating an app and a webpage that would help connect those in need with those who have training in mental health — either mental health professionals or other students who have some mental health training.

Deadline Wednesday

The deadline to participate in the upcoming event is Dec.28 and the competition is open to all students — regardless of age or field of study.

Organizers will then divide the students into groups of five or six, and each group will be assigned a mentor to help them through the process.

While the groups may get together in advance of the start of the competition, the real work starts on Jan. 21, the first day of the week-long event.

Each group will address the same health-care scenario presented to them by organizers. They will work to together to come up with a solution that they will present to a panel of judges on Jan. 28.

Interdisciplinary lenses

McKee said an important dynamic of the competition is to include students from a wide range of programs. He said organizers try to divide the teams to include a broad range of specialities on each team.

"Interdisciplinary lenses are extremely important in health-based competitions so that a different set of perspectives can be brought to the table," he said.

"I think that it's super important that students from all different backgrounds are involved in this and it really shows in the innovative solutions that are presented and ultimately can contribute to the winning team solution that might end up being implemented."

The competition can also get students thinking about a career in health care and McKee is a prime example of that.

He was torn between pursuing a career in academia and one in medicine. Through his experience with the Connecting the Thoughts program, he's decided on medicine. He's already applied to the Dalhousie Medical School and is waiting to hear back on whether he's been accepted.

McKee said the competition can also provide hope to what may seem like a hopeless future for health care.

"It's super disheartening when there's a story popping up about, you know, how our community members are affected in a negative way as a result of our health care, or how people are passing away as a result of our health care.

"I think that our competition really shows that there are people that are considering these issues and how we can change this and [implement] this into our system for the betterment in the future."