Nonprofits help medical students see patients as whole person

  • Monica Williams
  • Giving City Austin
10:36 a.m. Friday, Dec. 22, 2017 Local
Dell Medical School student Tyler Schmidt, center right, visits with Meals on Wheels Central Texas client Malcolm Caldwell, center left, to better understand how a patient’s home environment can affect their health. At far left is Meals on Wheels case manager Al Benedict, and at far right is medical student Pooja Parikh. (Photo contributed by Meals on Wheels Central Texas)

Dell Medical School students are learning how local nonprofits support patients’ health in a new program launched this month.

The program embeds about 50 second-year students with case managers and social workers from seven area nonprofits to learn how a person’s living environment and circumstances can affect their health and how to incorporate that understanding into patient care. While the two-year program just launched, the experience already has altered students’ perception of health care.

“I think everyone gains a lot from seeing what impact these community organizations have and how they can help patients remain independent and healthy,” said Alexandra Garcia, director of community engagement and health equity at the school.

Nonprofit partners in the program include AIDS Services of Austin, the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, Community First Village, Central Texas Food Bank, Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, Austin Harm Reduction Coalition and Meals on Wheels Central Texas.

In one meeting this month, Garcia and medical students Pooja Parikh, David Woerner and Tyler Schmidt accompanied Meals on Wheels case manager Al Benedict on a visit to the home of Malcolm Caldwell, a 97-year-old client and a World War II veteran. In that visit, Garcia says she and the students realized how holistic the care from Meals on Wheels Central Texas actually is.

“When we got to the house, we noticed the doorbell wasn’t working,” she said, “and the case manager made a note of that. They’re not just providing nutrition for their clients. They’re providing emotional support, helping with home repairs, taking care of pets. … They look at all aspects of a client’s health and life.”

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Health care professionals often speak of patient “compliance,” which describes how well patients follow their treatment plan, take their medication and attend follow-up visits and tests. For the future physicians, the visit was a lesson in a patient’s reality.

“When they see patients in their homes, they can see what’s realistic for them and what their barriers are,” Garcia said.

“Health care providers tend to assume, in general, that patients don’t want to or that they don’t have the will to do it rather than recognizing that there are a lot of other competing demands on patients’ time, and circumstances that may not make the healthy choice possible or easy,” she added.

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Adam Hauser, president and CEO of Meals on Wheels Central Texas, says that as a health care provider that goes directly into more than 5,000 clients’ homes, it is in a unique position to help other providers “because we’ve got eyes and ears on the clients every day.”

“This program gives us an opportunity to show the next generation of physicians what we’ve known for years: that how people live in their home is a determining factor in their health,” he said.