Honors Student, Faculty Member Research How to Improve Medical Trust in Kenya

Rohan Rathi wearing a blue butoon up shirt leaning against a staircase railing in front of a muralAs part of a VCU summer research program, Rohan Rathi is working with professor Christopher Brooks on a project framed by pandemics.

By William Lineberry
University College & Honors College

Rohan Rathi has always liked the idea of being right at the edge of something new. It’s what drew him to research. New knowledge is always coming out from researchers across the globe, and he wanted to become a part of that – to be the first to learn something new and to make his own contribution to scholarship.

This drive to break ground has led Rathi to Kenya. The rising senior in the Virginia Commonwealth University Honors College, who is majoring in bioinformatics in VCU Life Sciences, is part of a research project led by Christopher Brooks, Ph.D., a professor in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences, that is studying Kenyan traditional healers.

Rathi’s academic kinship with Brooks goes back to fall 2022, when he took an honors topics course Brooks taught called A Survey of World Pandemics. It examined pandemic responses dating back to the 11th century and through COVID-19, and while it fascinated Rathi for a number of reasons, one stood out.

“Throughout this class, Dr. Brooks emphasized something that we hadn’t seen as much before, and that is the cultural aspects of epidemiology,” Rathi said. “For example, how the social determinants of health guide pandemic decision-making, guide people’s thought processes and the course of these epidemics. I realized that there are cultural aspects to health care that you cannot ignore, and I got really interested in that and wanted to pursue that further.”   

Nearing the end of the fall semester, Rathi asked Brooks if he could join his medical anthropology research into the roles of traditional healers in Kenya. Brooks welcomed Rathi into the project, which has been Rathi’s focus as a participant this summer in the Honors Summer Undergraduate Research Program.

Rathi and Brooks are exploring if traditional healers can be incorporated into the Kenyan medical infrastructure to help address the cultural distrust that exists in communities throughout the country. Specifically, they want to examine healers' roles during moments of public health crises such as COVID-19 and HIV, and look ahead as to how they could be utilized to improve trust in modern medicine.

“Medicine in terms of public trust is at a crossroads in many ways,” Rathi said. “That’s why we really wanted to look at a potential solution to rectifying the trust in Western medicine.”    

Medicine in terms of public trust is at a crossroads in many ways. That’s why we really wanted to look at a potential solution to rectifying the trust in Western medicine.

In connection to their work this summer in the HSURP, Rathi and Brooks have partnered with Hekima University College as collaborators on the research project; Rathi is interning with Hekima separately for another project in Kenya. In August, Rathi is scheduled to go back to the country to interview people about connections and crossplays between traditional healers and the medical system.

Rathi said bringing in other scholars with different specialties has made the project more robust and well-rounded.

“When you are trying to create a solution for something as complex as loss of trust in health care, you need more disciplines and that multidisciplinarity” to be effective, he said. 

Rathi plans to attend medical school after graduating next spring and aspires to be a global physician. The Kenya project, he said, has only made him more interested in exploring new disciplines to broaden his skills and understanding of the world – a commitment that will ensure a high level of care for his future patients.

His mentor agrees in full. 

“Rohan has the right level of inquisitiveness to do very good, not as a medical student but to go beyond that to flourish in a global health scenario,” Brooks said. “I think he will be sensitive to different ways in which people live and manage [now that he’s taken part in the research project]. That will make him a stronger researcher and an inclusive individual.”

The opportunity to contribute to knowledge at the undergraduate level has been a privilege. It has transformed him and helped equip him for what’s to come next, Rathi said.      

“Being involved in these kinds of projects has given me the experience to be able to look at the world and understand more deeply its different aspects through doing research,” Rathi said. “I want to do something good for the future of medicine and the world as a whole.”