At an elementary school health fair, the medical students prepared an unusual demonstration to help the children understand why hand washing is such an important part of disease prevention. Using a black light and fluorescent baby powder that represented germs, the medical students showed the children how easy it is for a simple handshake to spread germs. A final step of squirting on hand sanitizer makes the baby powder disappear and completes the visual lesson.
Improving the health of the community can take more than expert diagnosis and the right prescription. Physicians also need first-hand interaction that will help them recognize the special health problems of medically underserved communities. A new program in the medical school aims to help students learn to effectively communicate with community members at various age levels so that they can better provide the skills and knowledge that will help patients improve their overall health.
Called Learners Involved in the Needs of Communities (LINC), the program required medical students to perform a minimum of 20 hours of community service during their M1 year. Allison Foroobarar wrapped up a year’s worth of tutoring ninth grade students at Richmond City’s Armstrong High School.
“I have really enjoyed working with the students,” Foroobarar said. “It’s been rewarding to see their improvement and even more gratifying to form relationships with these kids while hopefully serving as a role model.”
Where in past years, many students opted to serve in the community during their free time; the Class of 2014 was the first required to serve a set number of hours. To offer a variety of service opportunities, the medical school partnered with the non-profit organization Communities in Schools and offered training to help students tackle their volunteer roles. The course also educated students about health care disparities and the history of the socioeconomic development of communities within Richmond.
Course organizers know that a better understanding of the community and even home environments can help students understand which interventions and resources will be the most useful for their patients. Some of the volunteer sessions also gave students the chance to practice their skills in taking a patients’ medical history or performing a physical exam.
Monica Quach was part of a team that organized a health fair at a local elementary school, using games and demonstrations to teach healthy eating as well as the importance of exercise and washing their hands. “I thought elementary age students might want to run around, but they were right there, paying attention,” she said. The fair was a big hit with the school administration, who indicated they would welcome a return trip from next year’s first-year class.
LINC organizers are incorporating feedback from this year into next year’s course. Already, they’ve heard from first-year participants who’d like to return to the course as mentors to next year’s class.
“We would like to see some of the most successful projects get handed down to next year’s first-year students,” said Christopher Woleben, M.D., associate dean for student affairs.
He also hopes that the students will see long-term benefit from establishing ties to the communities in which they live and work, including forging ties to non-medical professionals. Foroobarar already recognizes that. “LINC has been a great opportunity to get involved in the Richmond community,” she said. “As medical students and future doctors, I think it is imperative to learn about the community and the patient population with whom we will be working.”